Wednesday, April 3, 2013

More fun museum visits for kids with special needs

This is one of a series of posts sponsored by CVS Caremark All Kids Can, a commitment to helping children of all abilities be the best they can be. Like them on Facebook!

Visiting children's museums with Max is fun—once he pushes past his fears. He is usually wary of walking inside and once we've coaxed him in, it takes him awhile to get comfortable. But I am newly revved to go to one because I've met a museum fairy godmother: Nora Moynihan, Director of Education and Community Enrichment at Port Discovery Children's Museum in Baltimore. 

Port Discovery is a member of the Association of Children's Museums, one of 66 organizations recently awarded grants by the CVS Caremark Charitable Trust. The museum's also a partner of PACT: Helping Children with Special Needs. Nora's been at Port Discovery for nearly twenty years; she has a BS and MS in Early Childhood Education, and she had some game-changing tips. 

Go during quiet times.

"Weekday afternoons and specially designed days to limit attendance are good times to visit. Some museums now have designated days for children with special needs. Port Discovery offers Discovery Days, with lights and exhibit sounds lowered, group bookings just for special needs groups, and other visitors asked to engage in quieter, calmer play. Weekends, school breaks and holidays tend to be the most crowded times—mornings in particular, when there are school trips or camp groups."

Check the website for info.
"Sites often have a section with tips for your visit which can contain information about amenities for children with differing abilities, programs for kids with special needs and other helpful information."

Prepare your child for the visit.
"It is particularly important for children with specialized needs to be prepared for new environments because oftentimes these environments cannot be controlled—there may be loud sounds, flashing lights and other things that may cause children discomfort. Some museum sites have scripted stories parents and children can use to prepare for the visit, with photos and descriptions of what children can expect to see. Port Discovery has downloadable Scripted Stories PDFs for exhibits including Tiny's Diner and Wonders of Water. If a museum does not have a scripted story, you can create your own with photos from online."

Talk about potential challenges.
"Letting a child know about things that may be uncomfortable is as important as how the trip itself is facilitated. For instance, you can say to the child who is afraid of noise: 'You might hear announcements over the loudspeaker when you are not expecting them. You will not be hurt—these are just to let everyone know when shows are happening.' If a child says they are not ready to try something—like going down the slide or touching animals—that is OK and maybe next time they will feel ready. I do however, recommend trying to observe—for a moment—the activity making them uncomfortable so they can see what it entails. No pushing or convincing is necessary, just a quiet observation. With this in mind, if a child is so terrified by something I do not recommend pushing the point: enrichment activities are supposed to be just that, enriching! I am very afraid of ziplines; no matter how many times I see them they still make me uncomfortable and no amount of looking is going to make me change my mind.  Often times we have to come to things on our own and sometimes never.  My life has been very rich without ziplines!"

Start at an area in the museum that relates to your child's interests.
"I always believe in offering kids of all abilities a taste of what they love/want first, something familiar to establish a point of reference and then bring them into the unknown. If they have a positive experience first they are willing to step out of comfortable confines and try something different. Children’s museums are known for having beautiful sensory areas such as water and sand play, arts and crafts to climbing exhibits. If your child enjoys water, spend time in that area and stay as long as your child wants. They are very capable of telling us what they need and want through their actions!"

Let kids linger.
"If a particular activity has your child actively engaged and he is enjoying the experience, let him stay in the area as long as they want. It’s not about quantity of activities—it is about quality of time with those activities."

Have a nice lunch.
"Most museums have a dining area, some with a child-friendly cafĂ©. In my experience the happiest visitors are the ones who pack their children’s lunches and snacks—that way they're assured of having exactly what they need or want. Also: no long waits in line! For guests on vacation who cannot prepare ahead of time, it is best to do a little research before going: Does the museum have a restaurant? What eating establishments are nearby that may be more appropriate for their family? Also, often eating areas in museums are open spaces, like a lunchroom, which can be distracting, loud and encourage running away from caregivers. For those who’s children need to have a quieter or more confined seating environment like a booth, it is best to plan ahead and look for resources in or near the venue. Call the museum and ask!"

Be a regular!
"If you find a particular cultural institution to be of great interest to your child then a family membership might be a nice buy. Oftentimes if children have short attention spans or tire easily, it will be difficult to see everything in one visit. A family membership makes repeat visits very economical and often they have reciprocal benefits with other places. In the children’s museum world, we want kids to grow up with us—so we want to see families often!"

You can always call.
"Each museum functions differently. However if you ask for someone in the education or guest services offices, they should be poised to answer questions. You will find staff at the other end of the phone or e-mail very helpful and friendly. If you did not find certain information online—say, like where challenging spots such as noises or flashing lights might be—they can fill you in. And if they do not have an answer they will get you to the right person who does. In children’s museums our work is children’s play and we take it very seriously!"

Review the trip.
"After your visit, talk with your child. What did she like? What was hard for her? What do they want to remember  for the next time? One follow-up activity can be to create something about the memory of the trip—either place photographs of the trip in an album or make a collage and attach their words to the pictures. These can be used for planning and preparing the next visit."

Photo: Courtesy of Port Discovery 


  1. love this! looking forward to sharing it with my group of parents :-)

  2. Love Port Discovery. We visited in 2010 on our way to Hilton Head from New Hampshire. It was aton of fun and a good break for my kids Kara(then 8)who has autism, Tyler(then 6)who has Angelman Syndrome and Emma(then 2).

  3. My tip for kids who are a little older and more independent - we always stop at the entrance and talk about how to identify staff, for if/when the kids get lost or need help. Like, the ones wearing the blue jackets and the ID tag etc. Miss 17, has down syndrome, likes to roam free but I always want her to know who to go to if she needs help. These days we can go to museums and the rule is, stay in the one room/exhibit and roam free, just don't leave the room, and come find me when you're done. We went to the Ontario Science Center during March break, turns out it was their busiest day in 3 years, of course! However, all went well, and no one lost.

  4. Port Discovery is hands down my boys' favorite place to play and explore. I'm so glad you got to talk to Nora. She is the best!


Thanks for sharing!

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