As the parent of an autistic child, I have a solid understanding of just how much work is involved in making sure that a trip is properly designed to allow our son to attend comfortably. Whether on vacation or near home, children’s museums are a wonderful place for families to bond; kids love these carefully crafted playgrounds, where they are free to imagine, explore, create and learn.
For children with special needs, however, outings can be difficult if child is limited by mobility challenges, struggle to communicate, or becomes easily overwhelmed with stimuli. Luckily, more and more museums are reaching out to children with special needs. From designing wheelchair accessible exhibits to offering sensory-sensitive visiting hours for children on the Autism Spectrum, museums are evolving to advance inclusion.
Here are ten children’s museums across the US and some of the ways they are accommodating families who have children with special needs.
1. DuPage Children’s Museum
Families with special needs children can participate in the “Third Thursday” program, when the facility remains open an extra two hours. During this inclusive and typically quieter time, parents will find a resource table with information on local organizations serving the disability community.
Kids can also interact with Alex, the therapy dog. The sheltie and his owner are official DuPage Children’s Museum (DCM) volunteers.
Once a month, DCM’s art studio introduces a different sensory-based activity. Its S.M.A.R.T. Café – which offers vegetarian and gluten-free entrees — also allows children to select a meal by pointing to the pictures on the menu.
The museum offers a long list of adaptive equipment and resources, including children’s books in Braille, noise-reducing headphones, adult-size wheelchairs, adaptive rods for Glow Art and a visual communication system.
2. Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
The entire museum is accessible by ramp and elevator, except for the Gravity Room in the Attic. Trained staff members can assist guests with special requests, and items available for borrowing during a visit include wheelchairs, sound-blocking headphones, sensory blankets and vests, wrist assistance cuffs and Versatile Velcro lap tables, which adjust to fit most wheelchairs.
The exhibits are described from a child’s perspective in the booklet, “Museum Stories.” Written especially for children with developmental disabilities, the booklet incorporates visual messages about what to at expect at each exhibit. Parents can download the guide before visiting and plan what is most appropriate for their child.
3. Please Touch Museum
Popular in Philadelphia, the Please Touch Museum’s “Play Without Boundaries” program strives to make visiting the museum comfortable and fun for families–even before they arrive. Parents can download “Museum Stories,” a 16-page booklet with photographs that depict everything from waiting in line at the entrance to dressing up as an astronaut in Space Station. Accessibility and inclusion trained staff members can direct families needing a sensory break to the “Quiet Space of the Day,” as well.
The popular Please Touch Playhouse Theater presents 25-minute performances every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at select times, and offers wheelchair accessibility.
Puppets stroll the museum talking to children and creating opportunities for improvisational dramatic interactions. Some of the playful characters include Dr. Penny, who encourages children to wash their hands; Benny Bear and his teddy, inseparable best friends; Gus the Bus Driver, who is a jokester; and Melita, who enjoys making new friends and showing her wheelchair flair.
4. Seattle Children’s Museum
Throughout the year on select Saturdays, the Seattle Children’s Museum dims the lights and adjusts the sound. “Sensory Sensitivity Hours” is a partnership with Autism Speaks. Admission is reduced, but must be purchased online to allow the museum to adjust their staffing accordingly.
Every Friday morning at 11:30 a.m., families can “hear” stories during the Visually Speaking program. The organization, Visually Speaking, specializes in teaching children from birth through age 12 how to communicate with sign language.
5. Boston Children’s Museum
At Boston Children’s Museum, children with special needs and their families will find the museum is accessible, welcomes service animals, and offers regularly scheduled ASL (American Sign Language) interpreted programs. A limited number of wheelchairs (child and adult size), strollers, sound-reducing ear muffs, and amplified listening devices for KidStage Theater performance are available at no charge.
The Morningstar Access Program opens the museum doors to children with special/medical needs at scheduled times throughout the year. Attendance is limited to 100 guests, which enables children and their families to enjoy the museum with less concern regarding crowds (pre-registration is required).
Parents will find a range of helpful tools on the museum’s website from a downloadable large print map of the facility to details on where to find quiet spaces throughout the museum. Typically, guests will enjoy a quieter museum experience during afternoons on school weekdays.
6. Chicago Children’s Museum
Located on the Navy Pier, the Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) is a standout when it comes to accessibility. The museum’s “Play for All” events, held the second Saturday of each month, invite families and children with disabilities to the museum an hour prior to the usual opening. Preregistration is required and the first 250 visitors receive free admission. Staff members participate in ongoing professional development to better assist those with special needs.
One of the few museums to design its exhibits in-house — from conception through construction — the CCM frequently partners with local organizations to add handicap-accessible features to special programs, too.
7. Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
The world’s largest children’s museum strives to make its nearly 475,000 square feet accessible, and incorporates universal design elements into its building, as well as exhibits. The National Geographic Treasures of the Earth includes adjustable exhibits, accessible dig pits and an exciting elevator “transport” entry. Along the walls of the exhibit, dig spaces are positioned at varying heights, so children who are unable to enter the “pit area” can hunt for a fossil. Touchable elements are included in all exhibits for those with visual impairments, and the historic carousel is a popular feature that can also accommodate a wheelchair.
8. Miami Children’s Museum
One Saturday each month, the Miami Children’s Museum closes to the general public and opens its doors for children with special needs and their families. The “Sensory Saturday” program provides modified lighting and sound adjustments. After engaging in art and music therapy or a yoga class, kids can relax in a “cool down” room. Without the large crowds, children can participate in creative performances and imaginative play while practicing social interaction, communication skills and self-expression in a non-threatening environment. A color-coded sound level map of the museum, inside an illustrated storybook guide, helps parents plan a visit according to their child’s individual needs.
9. The Golisano Children’s Museum
“Sensory Nights” are designed for children on the Autism Spectrum or with other types of sensory integration disorders. Lighting and sounds are muted throughout the museum, and “cool-down” areas are available. Held the fourth Tuesday of every month, the museum encourages siblings and grandparents to attend, too. Guests visiting this museum in Naples, Fla. can borrow a limited number of visual transition timers, child/adult wheelchairs and noise-reducing headphones.
10. Children’s Museum of Manhattan
Parents will find friendly advice on how to help their children get the most from their museum experience in the 16-page booklet, “PlayworksTM Guide for Families of Children with Disabilities.” Kids won’t realize they are learning as they “feed” letters to a talking dragon in the 4,000-square-foot PlayWorksTM exhibit, designed for children four and younger. The whimsical space is filled with stimulating tactile, visual and auditory activities. The museum’s entrance is also ramped and has a wheelchair lift, and is fully accessible, except for the lower level of the City Splash! Exhibit, which is located outside. Due to space and safety issues, only children with special needs may use strollers inside.
This is just a handful of great learning experiences for children with special needs. Last year when travelling we went to Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto and found that not only did our son love the experience but the layout was designed so that almost the entire facility would be considered accessible.
Are there any other Museums with great programs that should be included here?