My kids and I have been to the Brooklyn Children's Museum many times over the years but our visits were usually brief. That's because my ten-year-old son Jake has autism. We could only enjoy pretend play at World Brooklyn or looking at animals in Neighborhood Nature for short spurts of time before over-stimulation set in. The combination of crowds, ambient noise and exciting activities often caused tantrums, anxiety attacks and other emotional meltdowns, creating a frustrating experience for my entire family.
I always thought to myself, if only he could have a place to privately catch what I refer to as his "sensory breath," Jake would be able to stick around and explore all of the wonderful interactive exhibits. Well about a year ago, another parent of a child with special needs had the same thought. She approached management with her idea, which inspired the museum's brand-new Sensory Room. Trust me, for families with kids like my Jake, it's truly a blessing.
The Brooklyn Children's Museum's new Sensory Room is located in the science section on the lower level of the museum. The space itself is roughly 20 by 30-square feet, and can accommodate a dozen families during each 20-minute session, which is the perfect amount of break time for my son. The lights are dim and the walls are vanilla bland, providing minimal stimulation. It's a shoe-free zone, a fact I wish I'd known when I was dressing that morning (I would have made sure my socks matched). The floor is foamy and texturized, so if your child responds well to that input, wear thin socks. (If not, opt for thick ones.)
The Sensory Room is full of wonderful equipment and activities to stimulate kids in a variety of ways. Jake especially loved the swing, which has a 250-pound capacity so it's good for bigger kids, too. He also enjoyed hiding out in the purple tunnel, which transformed into a cool personal rocker. Other attractions include yoga balls; rocking/tunneling devices; supported floor mats; beanbag chairs; puzzles, blocks and building toys; and a bunch of weighted items (blankets, balls, disks) for input activities.
I really dig the sense of privacy and non-judgement the Sensory Room provides. I felt empowered to be in a space with other parents who were looking to satisfy their kids' needs. I always find it a parental victory when I see Jake experience that moment when his sensory "fog" lifts. There is a brightness to his eyes and his entire posture changes. I watched that happen in this room.
The staff told me that the museum is also planning to create personalized books to help children with special needs navigate the "social rules" of the museum. I have to constantly remind my son about taking turns, using his inside voice and keeping his hands to himself, so I'll be happy for any help in this area.
I do have one quibble with the Sensory Room: Its hours are quite limited, due to budget issues, I imagine, since there's always at least one dedicated staff member on hand. Currently, the hours are Tuesday and Thursday 2-5pm; the first and third Saturdays of the month and the second and fourth Sundays of the month 10am-noon and 2-5pm. Since these may change, it's best to call before you head over for up-to-date info: 718-735-4400. When you arrive at the museum, make sure the first thing you do is obtain a timed ticket for the Sensory Room at the Admissions Desk, otherwise you might get shut out. I also suggest thinking about whether to use the room as a "starter" or an "ender" to the day's activities, or a midday break.
The Sensory Room is located on the lower level of the Brooklyn Children's Museum, 145 Brooklyn Avenue at St. Marks Avenue. Free with admission: $9.
Read about other great things to do with children with special needs in our NYC Special Needs Guide.