Museums of all kinds can be great experiences for kids with special needs. A little planning and a few extra steps can make your visit great.
by Julee Brooks
For families of children with special needs, the thought of visiting a busy public space such as a museum might seem daunting. There are things, however, that families can do before, during and even after a visit to make it more joyful for everyone.
Before you go
Visit ahead of time. Taking a tour without your child may give you insight into logistics and allow you to focus on playing with your family during your visit. Scheduling an appointment is best.
Or call ahead. Let’s be honest, setting up a tour by yourself may not be feasible (and you may choose to spend a solo hour doing any number of other things!), but calling ahead can offer a lot of insight.
Things to ask:
• Do you offer special programs or discounts for families with special needs? At the Zimmer, our Open Door Days are always free. We also allow therapists (with ID) to visit with families free of charge every day.
• What days and times are quietest/least busy? Museum staff have a general understanding of visitor rhythms and can help you avoid very crowded times or large groups that can feel overwhelming.
• Do you have a quiet space available should we need it? At the Zimmer, we will happily open an empty classroom or office if a child and parent need a break or a place to have a conversation in private.
If there are other simple adjustments, ideas or items that might help your child be more successful, ask or suggest. We once had a parent mention that her child who was in a wheelchair would love the art studio if we only had table-top easels – which we do! They are now available every day for children who may need them.
Set expectations. For children on the autism spectrum, create a social story with an online map (or have the museum mail you a map ahead of time). Draw or write a list together of things you’d like to do on your visit.
At the museum
Pack well. Bring ample snacks, water and comfort items for everyone – including yourself. As flight attendants like to remind us, we are all better equipped to care for our children when we care for ourselves first.
Don’t be shy. Letting staff know about any special needs may allow us to offer support you might not be aware of (for example, the Zimmer keeps headphones to borrow should a child feel the noise is too much). When enrolled in a program, parents’ advice can help us know what strategies to use that will help your child and the entire class succeed together.
Take a friend. Inclusive classroom environments often include peer models, typically developing friends who can help model new experiences for children with special needs. The same principle applies to a museum visit. Plus, everything is more fun with friends!
Let your child be your guide. Whether your child spends the visit flitting around from exhibit to exhibit or seems to take in only a few square feet, don’t worry that they aren’t making the most of the time. Try to let go of expectations and enjoy! Having an activity or distraction (i.e. magazine, knitting, etc.) can be helpful for parents.
Consider a membership. It’s a great value, and being a museum member can keep you from feeling like you aren’t getting your money’s worth from daily admission, because you can come back any time! You also will have flexibility to drop in at a variety of times for programs to find the best fit for your child.
Ask for help. Need to have a private conversation with your older child, but your toddler refuses to leave the water table? Borrow a staff member!
Speak up! We all get better through feedback, suggestions and (constructive) criticism. Next month’s visitors will thank you.
Plan an exit strategy. To help avoid a meltdown, when you see signs your child is wearing down, encourage your child to play at an exhibit near the exit. When you say it’s time to go, you won’t have to weave through exciting areas on your way out.
Opt for family valet. The trek back to the car can often be where a tired child melts down. If possible, a few minutes before you’re ready to go, send an adult in your party to grab the car and pick everyone up at the exit.
Make the car inviting. Have a treat or favorite toy waiting for your child in the car for the trip home. Having something to look forward to can ease the pain of leaving.
At the Zimmer Children’s Museum, we are committed to ensuring that all children and families can enjoy the exhibits and programs that we offer.
For families of children with special needs, the Zimmer offers two distinct choices: an inclusive environment where every child is enthusiastically welcomed every day, and special programs such as Open Door Days where families may visit the museum for free with only the special-needs community.
See you at the museum!
Julee Brooks is Museum Director of Zimmer Children’s Museum. Learn more about the museum at www.zimmermuseum.org.