Creating a new kind of community space in Palmerston North

If you’re looking for family-friendly community spaces in Palmerston North, there’s no shortage—but parents of children with sensory needs know that even a great space can fall short when it’s too crowded or has unfamiliar or overwhelming stimulants.

In 2019, our team at EASIE Living in Palmerston North had an idea to create a new kind of community space for the city. After months of careful consideration, community input and support, the store launched a sensory playroom with an array of equipment and materials to stimulate or soothe the senses through light, sound and touch. The room is open between 8 am and 4 pm  Monday to Friday and is bookable for exclusive use in one-hour slots. 

A perfect match for mission

Enable New Zealand’s EASIE Living Centre caters to community with disability or mobility support needs, stocking a range of products from wheelchairs and walking frames to easy grip cutlery and stylish adaptive footwear for kids and adults. But it’s more than just a store. The centre is a fully kitted-out demonstration home with the latest disability and mobility support equipment on display. It’s also a hub for education and community engagement as part of the national Disability Information Centre network.

When store manager Demelsa Burnand and Enable NZ Business Development Manager Andrea Crutchley started looking into adding sensory items to the store’s range, it sparked the idea for a sensory space where parents and children could test sensory products for themselves—a perfect match for EASIE Living’s mission.

Workshopping ideas with the community

Before moving ahead, the team wanted input from community with lived experience. They started by asking for feedback from Enable NZ staff, many of whom have lived experience of disability or family members with lived experience. From the uptake, they could tell the idea resonated, and there were lots of ideas for what the sensory space could include.

From there, the EASIE Living team hosted a community focus group and got to hear from families with lived experience in Palmerston North. Manager Demelsa Burnand said, “The focus groups went really well. Hearing from people with lived experience of sensory needs helped us focus our ideas and validate that we were on the right track.”

It was clear there was interest, and there weren’t any dedicated spaces like this in the area—so Demelsa and Andrea got to work.

Making an engaging and relaxing space

Building the sensory space was a group effort. Demelsa and Andrea dedicated a secluded area of the store to the project, and they partnered with local organisations Altogether Autism, Autism NZ, Parent to Parent and Mana Whaikaha for input on the types of features to include in the space.

Our team also received support from suppliers, including Medix 21, Sensory Sam, Abecca Healthcare and more, who contributed products to the space.

By the time of the ribbon-cutting by Palmerston North Mayor Grant Smith on Tuesday 7 July, the room featured comfortable seating, weighted blankets, a fidget kit, a soothing bubble tower, a texture wall and more (you can see a full list of the room’s features on the website here (external website) ). But for Demelsa and Andrea, the room still isn’t a finished product.

“It’s a work in progress,” explains Andrea. “Over time we will refine it and develop it further depending on the feedback we receive. We’re at the early stages of this project and look forward to engaging with the community around this.”

The room may also pave the wave for more dedicated sensory spaces in the area. At the opening, Mayor Grant Smith said, “this is a fantastic addition to Palmerston North and I am sure that kids and families will absolutely love it. We’re keen to see what the feedback is so we can assess the benefits and needs of more of these spaces across our city.”

In its first week open, the sensory space already had multiple bookings. Stuff.co.nz reporter Rachel Moore visited during a booking with a mother and son (external website) , Sjahrne Nesbit and Poutokomanawa. Nesbit noted, “It’s such a calming space. There’s something about it that’s very, very relaxing.”

For the team at Enable NZ and EASIE Living—that’s a success.

 Group of four people - ENZ staff and the mayor

Left to Right: Palmerston North Mayor Grant Smith, Enable NZ General Manager Michelle Riwai, EASIE Living Manager Demelsa Burnand and Enable NZ Business Development Manager Andrea Crutchley.

Photo of a soothing bubble tower next to mirrors

Room with calming light feature