At the Iowa Children’s Museum, children play and learn about everything from pizza to physics. They make art, explore make believe farms, and take to the imaginary skies in flight simulators.
But for some kids, those activities are easier to access than others. The flight simulators, for example, are built into kid-sized planes that aren’t wheelchair accessible. It’s something the museum would like to change, part of a focus on increasing accessibility.
“A big part of our mission is the power of play and how important it is. The United Nations declared that all children in all cultures should have a right to play,” said Aimee Mussman, museum associate executive director. “Part of that is making sure play is accessible to all children.”
That’s why for the last year the museum has been working with accessibility consultant Ingrid Kanics, executive director of Kanics Inclusive Design Services. She gave feedback on both existing exhibits and a new exhibit slated to open in May, which will explore the physics of skateboarding.
In response, the museum has made changes, such as making transitions between rooms easier for wheelchairs to navigate and widening some doorways.
For the new exhibit, they redesigned plans for an interactive touch table. They had planned to install step stools into the table for smaller children, but now the stools will be independent steps children can push up to the table, so the table still is wheelchair accessible.
“Another thing we want to do is rebuild one of our airplanes in the Take Flight exhibit to be wheelchair accessible,” Mussman said.
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Kanics’ recommendations go above and beyond what is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. She recommended things like not having text on clear doorways between rooms, because it is more difficult for those with vision impairments to read. The museum is incorporating that and other recommendations into its design guidelines going forward.
“We want to not just be ADA compliant but to be thoughtful about how we design things and take it to another level,” Mussman said.
Two years ago, the museum started Super Hero Night, a monthly evening reserved for families with special needs. It is designed to be quieter to reduce stress for both children and their parents.
“We were hearing from families with kids with special needs that they love the museum but tried to avoid coming when they thought it would be too busy,” Mussman said. “They appreciate being able to play without worrying about judgment.”
Museum staff also aim to help raise awareness about inclusive play among the wider community. At a Disability Awareness Day in March, University of Iowa physical therapy and speech pathology students partnered with the museum. They set up an obstacle course to demonstrate challenges of using wheelchairs, crutches and other assistive devices and planned adaptive art activities, among other things. The idea was for children and parents to gain greater understanding and empathy for the challenges facing those with disabilities.
Inclusivity also includes making the museum welcoming across socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, Mussman said.
The museum offers free memberships for low income families and to members of organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, along with holding free events and free admission days throughout the year. It is also working on translating brochures and other information at the welcome desk into more languages.
On April 14, the museum is hosting a “Play for All” Day for the Celebration of the Young Child, an annual event held in conjunction with other community organizations. It focuses on seven areas that impact accessibility: social factors, age, seeing and hearing, cultural considerations, communication and language, disabilities and financial resources. The day will include free museum admission, activities and booths from partner organizations and vision and dental screenings.
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“We want to make the museum and learning and play accessible for everyone,” said Jessica Hansen, director of marketing.
If you go
What: Iowa Children’s Museum
Where: 1451 Coral Ridge Ave., Coralville
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $9, seniors $8, members free; free 5 to 8 p.m. the last Friday of each month for STEM Family Free Night
Details: (319) 625-6255, theicm.org
What: Celebration of the Young Child: Play for All
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 14
Cost: Free, including free admission to the museum through 6 p.m.
Details: Interact with more than 25 community organizations and learn how to make play accessible to all children, regardless of ability, age or other factors
What: Super Hero Nights
When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. last Sunday of every month
Details: Families with children who have special needs are invited to a quieter night of play