For kids and families living with sensory challenges, outings can be hard. New places, unexpected crowds, loud noises, or bright lights can all trigger anxiety and unwanted reactions. Many families cope by just staying home or avoiding places that generally offer loud and overstimulating environments.

In a move to make its space accessible and beneficial for all children and families, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum (GRCM) has implemented a sensory-friendly protocol.

Girl with Grand Rapids Children's Museum Sensory Friendly Tool Kits
The Grand Rapids Children's Museum has teamed up with local organizations to make its space as sensory-friendly as it can be.
Photo credit: Mod Bettie for Experience Grand Rapids

How it started

Local mom Sarah Grove, founder of the DMDD Awareness Facebook page, (DMDD stands for Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder) knows what it’s like to take a child with sensory challenges out in public. Her nine-year-old daughter, Halie, is on the autism spectrum and also is learning to live with ADHD, anxiety, and DMDD. DMDD is a relatively new diagnosis – it essentially means people with DMDD have a difficult time regulating their expressions and are prone to outbursts. Outbursts can be triggered by loud noises, bright lights, and crowded rooms – all scenarios common at places like the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

Girl wearing a Grand Rapids Children's Museum Sensory Friendly Tool Kit
Sensory-friendly tool kits come in stylish, easy to carry backpacks to alleviate any stigma.
Photo credit: Mod Bettie for Experience Grand Rapids

Rachel McKay, Professional Development and Inclusion Liaison at the Children’s Museum, recognized that the environment at the museum was not ideal for all children. What started as Connor’s Friends, an annual museum event for children on the autism spectrum, has blossomed into a program that visiting children can enjoy year round.

At a Connor’s Friends event, the Children’s Museum is transformed into an oasis of fun for children with sensory processing disorders by adding support and altering the museum's environment. However, it’s just not possible to adapt the full environment for everyday operations. That’s why Rachel and the GRCM team started working toward making the Children’s Museum as inclusive as possible for children like Halie. The Autism Alliance of Michigan joined the conversation when the Children’s Museum wanted to train its full staff on working with kids with sensory challenges. It may not be noticeable to a visitor popping in off the street, but the Children’s Museum has thought through the details of an anxious child’s experience – even down to the paint color selection – to maximize inclusion.

Items from the Grand Rapids Children's Museum Sensory Friendly Tool Kit
Tools like these emotion wallet cards help kids recognize and communicate their feelings.
Photo credit: Mod Bettie for Experience Grand Rapids

Making the Museum Sensory-Friendly

Staff training, adaptations, and paint color selection were not the only hoops the Children’s Museum jumped through to make its environment more inclusive. Perhaps the crown jewels of its system are the Sensory Resource Tool Kits families can check out while visiting. There’s no fee for use of a Tool Kit, just the requirement that you leave a photo ID at the front desk while you use the tools.

Grand Rapids Children's Museum Sensory Friendly Tool Kit bag
So many great tools, all packed into one bag!
Photo credit: Mod Bettie for Experience Grand Rapids

Each tool kit addresses common triggers kids with sensory disorders face. Tool kits are in stylish backpacks to alleviate any stigma. The backpack contains emotion wallet cards to help kids recognize and communicate their feelings. There are also noise-reduction headphones, which are great because they are not noise-canceling, so kids can still hear. A weighted compression vest and weighted suspenders offer children body awareness they otherwise might seek by pushing or shoving. Two fidget tools – one wearable and one handheld – offer distractions when needed. Finally, each kit contains a social storybook that helps kids anticipate what they’ll experience when visiting the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. This storybook is free to all and available on the museum’s website.

Family opening the Grand Rapids Children's Museum Sensory Friendly Tool Kit bag
Halie was happy to dive in and give the Children's Museum's new sensory-friendly tool kits a try!
Photo credit: Mod Bettie for Experience Grand Rapids

Putting the Tool Kits to Work

Sarah’s daughter, Halie, tested out the new sensory-friendly tool kits at the Children’s Museum. Halie offered a glowing review of the new tools. As a result, Sarah feels like her family can go out again. Knowing that there is a destination the whole family can enjoy, where Halie’s needs are being met, means that her family isn't sidelined any longer.

Sarah says, “In general, Grand Rapids is doing a wonderful job creating experiences accommodating families with sensory issues. It just keeps getting better.”

Woman and girl exploring the Grand Rapids Children's Museum Sensory Friendly Tool Kit
Sensory-friendly tool kits make outings to the Children's Museum easier for the Grove family.
Photo credit: Mod Bettie for Experience Grand Rapids

If you’re planning to visit the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, you can preview the “crowd level” by checking the GRCM website. There’s a Field Trip Tracker on the homepage indicating how many children are scheduled on school trips and what time they are expected. This feature alone can help you find a time to visit that will be pleasurable for your whole family.

The Children’s Museum currently has two sensory-friendly kits available. If you’d like to place one on hold on the day you plan to visit, call the front desk at (616) 235-4726. Know of other places that are making accommodations for kids with sensory challenges? Let us know in the comments below.