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Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 10:45 am

Kidzeum for “specially-abled” children

Lower sensory experiences during special hours

The Kidzeum of Health and Science in downtown Springfield is a high-energy, bright, colorful and sometimes noisy place where children are actively engaged, using all of their senses.  Exhibits focus on health and science, and kids are encouraged to jump, climb, crawl, explore, listen, touch, splash and create.  Walk into Kidzeum, and you will see lots of activity and kids having fun.

Photo courtesy The Kidzeum of Health and Science

While the Kidzeum is enormously popular and designed to be accessible to all, not all children are comfortable in a high-sensory environment. Thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln (CFLL), Kidzeum is developing a new program to better engage children who may perceive sensory information more acutely than other children and who benefit from quieter, less crowded and less brightly lit learning environments.

Kidzeum received a $2,500 Access to Recreation grant from the CFLL. “Our hope for the Access to Recreation Fund is to support recreational programs in our community that better serve people of all abilities,” said Stacy Reed, vice president of programs and marketing at the CFLL. “The Kidzeum is a fantastic venue for learning and discovery through play, and we are thrilled to be able to increase accessibility to the venue for local children and families and enhance the training of staff to better serve visitors.”

The Kidzeum will be open special hours for children with disabilities and/or special needs and their family and friends. Participants are self-selected; anyone who thinks his or her child would benefit from a lower-sensory experience is welcome to attend. The first day for this program will be Sunday, Nov. 25, from 10 a.m. until noon. A full calendar of low-sensory times may be found at Kidzeum.org.

The mission of Kidzeum is to serve as a place of learning and discovery through play for children of all abilities. Leah Wilson, Kidzeum’s executive director, says, “Early on, the Kidzeum board of directors recognized that to serve all children in our region, putting the goal of inclusivity into practice would be critical. They resolved to create memorable experiences of learning through play for children of all abilities. That has been formalized in our mission, and it informs everything we do.”

Children with mobility issues will benefit from fewer guests and greater access to exhibits.   Lights and noises will be turned down for a lower-sensory experience.  Children with autism spectrum disorder are a primary audience who will benefit from this opportunity, since sensory processing is a common issue in autistic children. 

Kidzeum is fulfilling an important need. According to the Centers for Disease Control estimates, one in 59 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, although it is about four times more common among boys than girls.  Altogether, it is estimated that about one in six children in the United States has a developmental disability.

 In addition to the interactive exhibits, Kidzeum will offer a variety of craft projects and educational programs. Wilson says, “The goal is to remove barriers to educational exploration and fun. We will also provide other accommodations, such as sensory maps, visual communication tools, social narratives for galleries, noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, sensory toys and fidgets, special activities and a designated quiet space.”

Staff members are being trained to ensure everyone feels welcome and that Kidzeum is accessible and comfortable for all children, regardless of disability or difference.  Amanda Brott, chief operating officer at Hope, will be providing training on autism and inclusion for all staff.  Brott says, “Many children, even those without autism, become overwhelmed in settings that are loud, crowded or full of visual noise.  Hopefully, the very thoughtful programmatic additions and adaptations will ensure that all children can enjoy the learning and fun experiences that Kidzeum has to offer.”

Brott continued, “The Springfield community is fortunate to have such a responsible organization providing learning opportunities to our children.  All children benefit when children with disabilities are included. By partnering with Hope to ensure an enjoyable experience for everyone, Kidzeum has shown that learning should not only occur through the exhibits. There is no way to change the stigma associated with individuals with disabilities until we are able to change the attitude and culture of a younger generation.  Kidzeum is teaching all of us that different is OK, that adaptations can be made, and we can all enjoy activities together.  Inclusion is everything.” 

Mary Wyman, who works in student support services for Springfield Public Schools District 186, says, “The positive experience of a sensory-friendly event impacts our community as a whole more than one would imagine.  A broad range of individuals can have a high level of sensitivity to such stimuli as bright or flashing lights, loud noises and the busyness of a crowded venue.  Hypersensitivity can affect typically developing children, as well as individuals with autism, Down syndrome, ADHD and trauma.”

Wyman noted that sensory-friendly events provide a positive experience for people with sensory processing issues and their families. “There’s a freedom in knowing you can take your child to an event that they might not be able to experience otherwise, and if they have a meltdown, you’re surrounded by people that ‘get it,’ and they aren’t silently judging you or your child.”

Kidzeum considers this program a starting place. Wilson said, “We intend to listen to caregivers in order to keep improving our offerings.”

 Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after retiring from the State of Illinois. She served 14 years as associate director of the Illinois State Museum.

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