The Field Museum already had the world’s most complete T. rex skeleton; now it’s aiming to be the most inclusive spot in Chicago to learn about natural history. That’s why the museum recently launched two programs, Accessibility Days and Sensory Saturdays, specifically for kids and adults with special needs.
Accessibility Days are held on Tuesday mornings, when the Crown Family PlayLab is closed to the general public. Groups, whether formal organizations and schools or more casual gatherings of friends, can make reservations to use the PlayLab, which is personalized for the needs of the group. So if there is a noise sensitivity issue, music volume can be lowered or turned off, or furniture can be moved to make room for wheelchairs or mobility devices.
“They really have free exploration of the space,” says Alyssa Harsha, early childhood learning experiences coordinator. “It’s a very welcoming, friendly environment.”
Harsha says that the six experiences within the PlayLab lend themselves to individuals with special needs, whether it’s the tactile experience of digging in Moon Sand to find dinosaur bones or pounding on drums in a sound-proof music room.
“We have so many tools at our disposal that cater to needs of people with disabilities,” Harsha says. “Realizing that we have these tools and this need, it just kind of made sense.”
Accessibility Days began in the fall and were such a success that the museum created Sensory Saturdays, a chance for families of kids with special needs to visit the PlayLab before it opens to the public. The program includes general admission to the museum, so Harsha says the PlayLab often becomes a “launching-off point for the rest of their visit.” Families are welcome to return to the PlayLab if they need a break or to use the accessible restrooms. The PlayLab is also equipped with tools like headphones and weighted blankets if the need arises.
Both programs require advance registration but are free to attend. Harsha also recommends downloading the free app, “Field for All” (search “Field Museum Inclusion”), which has resources such as a scheduling tool, sensory map of the PlayLab and customized communication cues.
“This is a place that’s safe and welcoming,” Harsha says. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Elizabeth Diffin is the senior editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.
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