Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tips for a Sensory-Friendly Field Trip

Two of my students enjoying the Pathless Woods sensory-friendly art exhibit.

I believe that teaching children how to act socially is equally important, or even more important, than teaching the academics.  This year I am fortunate enough to teach at the school where my son attends.  You can read more about my decision here.  This is not a school only for children with special needs, but many children who don’t find success in public school find a home at our school.  I teach children
with learning disabilities, sensory processing differences, ADHD, autism, and the list goes on. 

Last week our class went on a field trip to the art museum.  I love that our school takes field trips at least once a month.  Luckily I had a few parent chaperones attending the trip with me, so I was able to split my class into a group of girls and two groups of boys (yes, I have way more boys than girls!).  I decided to let the girls venture off with their chaperone, and I kept the boys with two chaperone moms and me.  Taking a group of boys through an art museum might seem like a daunting task, especially a group of active, high-energy, sensory-seeking young men who love to sing in the bathrooms and hear their voices echo down the hallways.  I knew it would be an adventure, to say the least.

What follows are some tips for taking a child or a group of children on a field trip or on any kind of outing in public.  These tips will work whether you are a home-schooling mom, a classroom teacher like me, or just taking your kids out for a weekend adventure.  We’ve used these same techniques with our autistic son over the past few years, and they’ve allowed us to have successful outings on cruise ships, Disney World, the theater house to see the musical Wicked, and everywhere in between.  Our son loves eating out at restaurants and visiting our local science museum.  The trick for us is to go frequently and to have sensory tools on hand to help the trip to be a success. 

Sensory-Friendly Tips for Field Trips and Outings

1)   Review Expected/Unexpected behaviors prior to the field trip.
This year my school has started using Michelle Garcia Winner's social thinking curriculum.  Many of my students struggle with understanding how to think through social interactions, so we teach these skills explicitly.  This is different than simply teaching social skills.  One aspect of the social thinking curriculum is understanding the difference between expected and unexpected behaviors.  Rather than talking about behaviors as good or bad, we talk about expected and unexpected choices.  This takes the value judgment out of the situation while allowing us to review what would be socially expected in a given situation (such as quiet voices inside a museum) and unexpected (touching the art exhibits).  We also talked about appropriate noise levels for different aspects of the trip (the bus, the inside museum part, the playground, etc).  I always start reviewing expectations a few days before the trip during our Morning Meeting, and on the day of the trip we also talk about the schedule for the day, which is especially important for my children on the spectrum.  This lets them know what to expect and removes some of the anxiety from encountering a different structure to the day. I do remind them that we may have to be flexible during the day as not everything will run exactly as we have planned. 

2)   Bring sensory tools on the go.

It's important to consider what sensory tools will help a child to have a successful outing.  We have a little boy in our class who used to run away when it was time to get on the bus for a field trip.  We were told that last year he actually once hid UNDER the bus during a field trip.  I recognized that this was an over-stimulated child, and wearing a pair of noise cancelling headsets on the bus and on the field trip have worked wonders for him.  Now he can enjoy the experience because it isn’t “too much” for him.  My son also wears noise-cancelling headsets on the bus and to any live theater performance.  Each child will be different, but if a child needs a chew necklace or a fidget tool in class, then he or she might need the same tools out in public.  Make sure you build in plenty of down-time after the field trip too so the child can decompress after a very stimulating day.  We use calm lighting and relaxing music while we do quiet coloring or centers after we return to school.  

3)   If possible, do the most popular (aka busy) exhibits early in the day.

This helps you avoid the crowds and waiting in lines.  We always use this trick when we visit Disney or any of the other major theme parks  We plan our day ahead and always try to get at our destination as close to when they open as possible.  This is when the crowds are lightest.  We stay for a few hours and tend to leave mid-day, just as the crowds are arriving. 

On the day my class visited the art museum, we decided to visit the mansion first where the art donors had lived, since it was available by tour only.  I spoke to my students about the plan while we waited for the museum to open its doors, and as soon as we were released to go, I walked at a brisk pace through the museum grounds (which the boys loved), and we made it to the front of the line just as they opened up for tours.  This allowed us the freedom to explore the rooms at our pace and then move on to other areas of the grounds while other groups were still waiting their turn in line.  Of course it’s not always possible to be the first, but a little planning and prioritizing can go a long way.  

4)   Don’t be afraid to adapt and adjust plans as needed.

As I mentioned earlier, I chose to keep my most active and sensory-seeking boys with me on our art museum trip.  I knew that we would be exploring the museum our own way.  It was important to me that the boys followed the rules of the art museum, but I also wanted to set realistic expectations for them.  I knew that they wouldn’t be able to handle hours in a quiet art gallery surrounded by adults who might not be as understanding of their youthful energy.

So, even though we were scheduled to explore the quieter main art building, I decided to give us twice as long exploring the circus museum instead.  When it was our turn to head to the main art building, I chose to skip the Asian art room altogether (The dour look on the art docent’s face outside the hall of pristine sculptures was enough to convince me to steer my boys elsewhere.   The boys started charging ahead through the rooms and I had a vision of priceless statues toppling to the ground, so I ushered them out quickly.) and I instead brought them to a sensory-friendly exhibit called the Pathless Woods where they were wandered through a ribbon room.   They loved running their hands through the yards of ribbon hanging from the ceiling, listening to the music, and spreading their arms wide as they walked as fast as they were allowed.

We also decided to take a long walk by the water of the lovely bay that runs next to the museum and the boys looked for sea creatures and rocks by the water’s edge.  We wandered through secret gardens and I let then run through open fields.  In short, we enjoyed the museum our way.  Luckily, the moms with me were both moms of two of the sensory-loving boys in the group, and so they were on board every step of the way.

5)   Use real life teachable moments as they happen.
When unexpected behaviors occur (which is bound to happen), it’s important to use the opportunity as a teachable moment.  

At lunch, one of the kids said that “Nate” was running around barefoot near the trees that were next to the picnic tables.  Sure enough, I spotted Nate’s shoes on the ground and Nate halfway up the tree.  I called Nate over and sat him down next to me on the bench.  We talked about why running around barefoot is unexpected.  “But, I needed a good grip to climb the trees.”  We talked about how that wasn’t safe to do in public.  He understood, put his shoes and socks back on (we had to have another talk about why he needed to wear his socks too), and then I let him go.  I could have yelled and lectured at him, but instead I used the moment as a learning opportunity for him.  Then, I released him back to play to see if he had learned what I taught him.  Had he taken his shoes off again, he would have had to sit out the rest of the playground time and reflected on his choices. 

6)    Remember- it’s about learning and having fun!

Our day turned out to be a lot of fun, but it could have easily gone a different way if I had structured our trip differently.  My boys had their moments of impulsivity (such as when they finally broke free and ran towards the playground the moment I released them, almost barreling over a couple of elderly visitors) but overall they managed to follow the expectations because I set reasonable limits for them.  I like to think that one of the reasons why we were able to enjoy the trip was because I found the balance between setting boundaries to keep them safe while still allowing them the freedom to be themselves.   I try to do the same for my own son when we go on adventures.  I see so many parents at theme parks dragging their child from one place to the next, trying to “do it all” and trying to “get their money’s worth”.  All they succeed in doing is creating a tired, miserable, over-stimulated child.  I can’t tell you how many meltdowns I’ve seen at Disney, which is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth!  Remember- it’s supposed to be fun, and for the trip to be fun for them, we have to consider what works for them.  This will make the outing much more enjoyable for everyone! 

Good luck and happy exploring! 

Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.


    Thanks and love,
    Full Spectrum Mama

    1. Ha!! Of course you would get why that is such a BIG DEAL! I'm not sure if I actually convinced him that socks matter. It was more of he needed to wear socks if he wanted to continue playing on the super-cool playground. Playground won the day.

  2. These are such great tips! I'm going to start using Unexpected and Expected now. Just going to the store with a sensory seeker is exhausting, hopefully I can fill up our tool box enough to start doing field trips again. Your advice is greatly appreciated!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ellie! A trip to the store can be a sensory nightmare, that's for sure. Baby steps. :)


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