Johnson County Museum launches ‘Sensory Friendly Mondays’ for visitors who need calmer spaces

Johnson County Museum and Britain Development have launched Sensory Friendly Mondays, a monthly event that creates a space for people with sensory challenges to visit the museum and Kidscape play area. Above, 5-year-old Dash Burnham of Overland Park makes his rounds through Kidscape on a recent Monday morning.

Dim the lights, reduce the noise, and let them explore.

Those were some of the things that made the Kidscape room in the Johnson County Museum a calm yet engaging place to be on a recent Monday for children with sensory challenges.

On the first Monday of each month starting in June, the entire museum will be adjusted into a low-sensory environment, making it more accessible for children and adults with sensory processing challenges and their families.

Monday, June 7, marked the first of what the museum is calling its Sensory Friendly Mondays, a collaborative effort by the Johnson County Museum and Britain Development, a program with AdventHealth Shawnee Mission aimed at assisting children with special needs.

Janette Foster of Britain Development (center), said the Sensory Friendly Mondays program is designed to help people with sensory challenges to be as successful as they can at the museum.

Janette Foster, program supervisor for Britain Development, said her team was “really excited” for the partnership.

“We just feel very strongly that all families should have a place in the community, and so just the more opportunities that we can provide families to feel like, ‘Yeah, I can take my child there, they’re going to have fun, they’re going to be supported,’” Foster said. “Because that is the whole point of taking your kids out, you want to have fun, and sometimes it’s not fun for kids that have sensory-processing issues.”

The visit on Monday was particularly special for children who are sensitive to noisy, overwhelming environments.

For some families, it can serve as a unique time during the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic for parents to bring their children who have sensory challenges to a public space without fear of stressing them out.

“By decreasing the different sounds, limiting how loud things are, we’re just kind of setting the environment up so that they can be as successful as they can if they have those types of sensitivities,” Foster said.

‘Open-ended imagination play’

At age 2, George Wirtz of Overland Park gets overwhelmed sometimes. His mother, Melissa Wirtz, said she’s excited to bring him to a space where he can play and explore without getting overstimulated.

Oftentimes, people on the autism spectrum face challenges in processing sensory input.

Bright lights, loud and repetitive noises and crowded spaces can prompt anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed. For kids, this can often lead to acting out, tantrums or hyperactivity.

Overland Park mother Erin Pakowski has a 5-year-old son, Dash, and 3-year-old son, Parker, who both have autism.

She said Sensory Friendly Mondays will be a great outlet for her family, especially as the weather gets hot and they look for fun indoor activities.

“Coming to another option that will keep him calm is great, keeping him grounded and not too hyper,” Pakowski said of Dash, a hands-on learner who also has ADHD. “He has a great imagination; this just is open-ended imagination play.”

Melissa Wirtz, an Overland Park mother, said her two-year-old son, George Wirtz, gets easily overwhelmed in loud places or big crowds.

Leah Palmer (center), curator of education at the museum, said the staff is grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with Britain Development and make the museum more inclusive and accessible.

“So I was really excited about this, to see that we could come with a little bit less kids, more controlled atmosphere, and he could play and do things that my daughter was able to experience as a 2-year-old, but he hasn’t been able to do that,” said Melissa Wirtz.

Leah Palmer, curator of education for Johnson County Museum, said Sensory Friendly Mondays is an initiative to make the museum more inclusive and inviting for all people.

“We regularly assess who is and isn’t coming, and look for ways that we can make it more inviting,” she said.

The program includes sensory kits for children, including sunglasses, fidget toys and noise-canceling headphones.

The program also includes sensory kits with goodies for young visitors, such as a fidget spinners, sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones, as well as play scheme cards, social narratives and visual checklists that provide  information for families.

The museum has also set aside a quiet space for participants who become overwhelmed.

The sensory room includes floor mats and a children’s tent, allowing kids to block out input and decompress.

Palmer said in many ways, Kidspace and the Johnson County Museum were already sensory-friendly.

“Mostly what we’re doing is just setting the time aside and letting people know that we want you here, we’re making it as comfortable as we can, please come visit,” she said.

The program takes place on the first Monday of every month from 9 a.m. to noon.

Capacity is 30 participants, so pre-registration is encouraged and available on the museum’s website. The next event will be Monday, July 12.