Sensory-Friendly Experiences for Kids in Philly
From relaxed performances to quiet spaces, here are the places working to make Philly more accessible for all.
When your child has sensory sensitives or other special needs, it can be difficult to enjoy all the wonderful things our city has to offer. In addition to some experiences possibly being too overwhelming, there is the element of unpredictability that comes with raising a child with these concerns—sometimes it is unclear when reading about an attraction or performance what stimuli will be present, which ones will prove challenging, and where you can take your child for a “time out” to recharge.
With increasing awareness of these issues has come the increased commitment of institutions and attractions to provide a welcoming space for individuals with special needs. From relaxed performances to social stories to the addition of quiet spaces, organizations have made adjustments to help make experiences more sensory-friendly and accessible for all.
Museums and Attractions
4231 Avenue of the Republic
The Please Touch Museum hosts Play Without Boundaries events throughout the year, where the museum is adapted to provide a relaxed environment for individuals with autism, learning differences, or other sensory and communication needs. In addition to the modifications, the museum creates quiet spaces and special activities for these events.
They also offer on-site sensory-accommodating items, such as noise-canceling headphones and weighted vests to make the experience more comfortable.
222 N. 20th St.
Five times throughout the year, the Franklin Institute hosts Sensory Friendly Sundays. The museum opens early, and exhibits are modified to provide an opportunity to experience all the Franklin Institute has to offer for people on the autism spectrum and with a range of differing abilities. They also create a dedicated quiet space that provides a chance to cool down and take a break with a tent, fidgets, noise-canceling headphones, and more. Admission is free with pre-registration, and for guests arriving before 9:30 am on the day of the event. For questions, contact email@example.com.
In addition to the Sunday events, the Franklin Institute has created sensory maps for their exhibits that explain how someone with sensory processing issues may be affected by each sense. These maps are available online if you want to read them in advance and prepare your child (for example, here is the one for the Heart exhibit).
1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
At “Access to Science: Opening the Doors to Autism” events (occurring six weekend mornings per year), children on the spectrum and their families are invited to experience the museum before the crowds. You can visit with the dinosaurs, and all the other exhibits, at your own pace. Pre-registration is required (same-day registration is available onsite). If you would like to attend, please contact visitor services at 215-299-1060 or firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition to the special events, the museum has designed guides to the exhibits for children with developmental disabilities, including visual elements and easy–to-follow narratives, which you can download or pick up from the admissions desk.
3260 South Street
Designed for teens and young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities, Archaeology in the A.M. opens the museum early and pairs the museum experience with multisensory activities like craft stations, music-making, ancient games, interactive gallery tours and a dedicated quiet space with dimmed lights and fidgets. Contact email@example.com for more info.
The Penn Museum has also created a Sensory Map that identifies quiet and dimly lit spaces for visitors who may need a break.
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
The art museum has Sensory Friendly Mornings specially designed for children on the autism spectrum or who have other sensory sensitivities. During these special hours, the lights, volume, and crowds are turned down. These opportunities are more frequent in the summer when the museum hosts its ArtSplash family programming—this past summer, there were four such events in just two months. Space is limited for Sensory Friendly Mornings, so to reserve your spot, email AccessProg@philamuseum.org.
The museum also has specially adapted tours (available by prearrangement) for individuals or groups with mobility, hearing, visual, intellectual, or other disabilities.
525 Arch St.
On Sensory-Friendly Sundays (select Sundays throughout the year), NCC provides visitors with sensory processing challenges the opportunity to experience the museum in a secure and comfortable environment by providing emotionally safe spaces for families, modified programming for diverse sensory needs, and specialized staff training. Free, pre-visit guides are available for the general museum experience as well.
3400 W. Girard Avenue
The zoo worked with the Center for Autism Research at CHOP to create KidZooU, which uses Universal Design to provide a multisensory and inclusive experience for kids. There is a dedicated quiet space near the entrance of KidZooU as well, and easy-to-understand social stories to help children and their families prepare for their visit. The zoo also created a map identifying quiet areas throughout their grounds.
1 Riverside Drive, Camden, NJ
The aquarium has recently started hosting F.I.S.H. (Family Inclusive Special Hours) nights, where crowds are reduced, and sound and lighting accommodations have been made to ensure an enjoyable experience for everyone. Pre-registration is required online.
In addition to these events, the aquarium has created a sensory guide, which can help you prepare for your visit. You can also borrow noise cancelling headphones and weighted blankets at the information desk and member services.
The Pennsylvania Ballet was the first resident company of the Kimmel Center to offer sensory-friendly performances for families with children on the autism spectrum. In conjunction with Art-Reach, they crafted a sensory-friendly experience—from staff training to creating a pre-performance social story—and created a quiet area in the lobby with a soft tunnel and comfy tent where kids can relax. They also offer attendees noise-cancelling headphones to wear in the theater, as well as brightly colored fidget toys for kids who need some extra sensory input to help calm them down. During the performance, lights remain on at a low level, and volunteers stay in the theater to help out. The ballet does a sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker during the holiday season, and also within their Family Programming series in the spring.
The Saturday morning performances of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Sound All Around family concert series in the Academy of Music ballroom are traditionally sensory-friendly, which means a smaller audience capacity, pre-visit stories, fidget toys, and a relaxed environment for kids who may need to move, vocalize, or get up to walk around. In addition, the Philadelphia Orchestra started formal sensory-friendly concerts at the Kimmel Center with a no-shush policy, cool-down spaces, lighting adjustments, trained helpers, and interaction between musicians and audience members.
Select performances throughout the season are designated as sensory-friendly, with relaxed house rules, designated quiet areas, trained staff, and sensory kits (fidget toys, headphones, etc.). This year, the beloved children’s book The Rainbow Fish comes to the Merriam Theater stage, with a sensory-friendly performance on November 23 at noon.
Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad Street
This past holiday season, the POPS held a sensory-friendly performance of A Philly POPS Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season, with a judgment-free environment, mid-level sound and light, trained staff, a quiet area, and fidget devices. Keep an eye out for more in the future.
825 Walnut Street
Walnut Street Theatre offers sensory-friendly productions of its kids’ shows, and also has a 10-week sensory friendly acting group where students use theater exercises and games to practice social skills and create their very own performance for friends and family.
More Experiences and Resources
3502 Scotts Lane
This inclusive indoor playground features a sensory room, multi-sensory open play experiences, and even on-site therapy services.
12357-59 Academy Road
This indoor sensory gym hosts open play, crafts, and classes ranging from dance to social skills groups.
Certain branches of the library offer regular Sensory Storytimes geared toward children on the autism spectrum and their families throughout the year. Check their schedule for upcoming dates and locations.
Click here for more resources in the suburbs.
Photographs courtesy of Visit Philadelphia.