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Children’s Museum supports special needs families with ‘Play Days

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On a recent Tuesday morning at the Tacoma Children’s Museum, children with special needs – as well as their siblings, classmates, parents and other caregivers – played with running water in a playscape, fed pieces of cloth into Airways, a pneumatic air system that looks like a giant plastic caterpillar, painted faces, climbed through a rope tunnel, watched a story time presentation concurrently presented in American Sign Language, and otherwise had a lot of fun reenacting parts of the classic children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle.

The experience was part of an innovation by Tacoma Children’s Museum – in partnership with Pierce County Step Ahead, Tacoma Public School speech pathologist Lorraine Maida, and Tacoma School of the Arts students – that seeks to give special needs children their own morning to experience the Museum. The program is free and allows for drop-in attendance, although pay-what-you-will donations to the Museum are invited.

The Tuesday morning program, “Tuesday Play Days and Inclusive Play to Learn,” was begun in summer of 2015 said Alyssa Tongue, Learning Experiences Director for the Museum. The Museum recognized that for children and their families experiencing special needs, the usual physical environment and programs of the Museum “were often too populated and busy for children to have a successful experience,” Tongue said.

Tongue noted that some of the children served by the program include those who are hearing-impaired, who have cerebral palsy or require physical or occupational therapy, and those who have autism, or challenges with sensory processing and require an environment that is not overly stimulating.

Marti Cates, Special Educator for Step Ahead, explained that many children with special needs “can’t go to a family style restaurant . . . and play in the play area on their own and interact with other kids” or be expected to sit still for 30 minutes at a restaurant. Cates has been working in the early education field since she graduated from college 35 years ago.

The Tuesday morning programs, she said, provide “quiet little nook(s)” around the museum where children “can calm down with cozy pillows and then reintegrate.” In the recent Tuesday program, one such nook was located behind a pillar, and featured a cushy round caterpillar “den” lined with colorful pillows.

Okumu Foto, the mother of two-year-old twins, learned about Play to Learn through an early intervention program. It enables her children “to calm down a little,” she said, and puts them “in a different environment and a different experience,” helping with social skills and oversensitivity issues.

Her children, she said, love “playing in the water, and anything to do with ‘Sesame Street’ – or Elmo.”

Parent Amanda Lewis, as her two-year-old daughter emerged from the rope tunnel, said that it is challenging for hearing-impaired children to meet other children who sign, and Play to Learn enables her child to meet others who can communicate with her.

Cates related an anecdote about how the Story Alive! portion of the Tuesday programs, offered three times per year, helped one child who she said had never, never been able to sit and attend a story (reading) or look at more than one page (of a book) at a time.

“After this event – as soon as he got home – he handed the book to his mom and in his limited language said, ‘eat, eat’ and he sat down with his mom...(and) listened to the entire story and pointed to every single picture in the book. He had never done anything like that before. His mom was shocked – it was clear that now he understood what the story was about and that this was a story – that’s why we send the books home, so that (children) can repeat over and over again with their parents the experience of the story.”

For parents Sherene Sampson, Katherine Oak-Schiller and Roseanne Brauner, the program has enabled them – as well as their children, ages one and a half to four – to meet and coalesce into an informal social group. They met last year when the Play to Learn program was offered at a Salishan location (presently, Play to Learn is offered exclusively at the Museum location). “Were very lucky to have found this program,” Sampson said. “Just getting out and socializing with other moms and having the support of other moms for all of our growing children,” has been an enriching experience, she said, as she watched her daughter play with a maroon-colored butterfly made from a giant coffee filter.

“I think all of our kids have benefitted greatly.... Since last year they’ve just bonded – they are in tears if they are apart from each other for more than two days.”

Tongue emphasized that though the Museum uses social media, she still finds that “by far our best marketing tool is word of mouth – from a teacher telling a family that they work with, from a parent to another parent” who might ask, “Hey, did you know there’s a Children’s Museum of Tacoma and they welcome our family right where we’re at?”

Tongue also emphasizes that not only are special needs children welcome, but so too are their “typically-developing” siblings – which allows “children experiencing special needs (to) have community with typically developing children – and vice versa.” Because a family must necessarily devote extra attention to a special needs child, Tongue said, the inclusion of all also allows typically-developing siblings to be nurtured as well in a fun environment.

The recent Tuesday program hosted more than 60 children, parents, teachers and caregivers. Word about the program is spreading, in part through a consortium of more than 70 Pierce County early learning organizations: “First Five Fundamentals.”

Not only parents and their children, but also a host of others participate in the Tuesday play days, including developmental preschools and neighboring school districts. Tongue says that some organizations currently working with families through home visits also schedule outings to the Museum.

Peggy Chisholm, a grandmother of 10 attending the Tuesday morning program with her husband, watched as her grandchild and others eagerly fed the clear plastic pneumatic caterpillar with “food” (actually pieces of cloth). She said of the Museum: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been here – I think it’s a wonderful place.”