Forest Preserve’s New Inclusive Programs Designed for Children with Autism, Seniors and Bilingual Visitors

Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville will open on a day it is normally closed so children with sensory issues, including autism, can attend a program that is designed to accommodate their needs. The Forest Preserve District of Will County’s “Sensory-Friendly Day: Animal Discovery” is set for Monday, March 16. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Children with autism are being invited to a special program in mid-March, one of three the Forest Preserve District of Will County will offer in the coming months to be more inclusive of a wider variety of visitors.

Isle a la Cache Museum, which is normally closed on Mondays, will open up for a special “Sensory-Friendly Day: Animal Discovery,” program from 10-11:30 a.m. on Monday, March 16. The program is designed for families that have children ages 12 or younger with sensory issues, including autism. No other visitors will be allowed in the museum during this offering. Registration is required by Saturday, March 14 by calling 815.886.1467.

Another program geared toward seniors, “Senior Coffee Talk: Bird Migration,” is set for 10-11:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 10, at Isle a la Cache Museum. A brief presentation will be held followed by an opportunity for bird topic discussions and a short hike, weather permitting. Registration is required; 815.886.1467.

And a third program, “Bilingual Hike,” scheduled for 9-10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 27, at Hammel Woods – Route 59 Access, will provide Spanish/English field guides and a Spanish-speaking interpreter. Both English and Spanish will be practiced along the hike, which is intended for speakers of both languages. Registration is not required.

Inclusive programming

The goal in hosting these kinds of programs is to make Forest Preserve offerings more inclusive, said Chris Gutmann, a facility supervisor with the Forest Preserve District.

“We don’t want to exclude anyone,” he said. “We have to think about how our facilities can be used by someone who can’t see well, can’t speak English well or hear well or has sensory issues and reacts to certain stimuli differently.”

All three programs were designed by interpretive naturalist Jessica McQuown, whose interactions with Forest Preserve visitors sparked her quest for more inclusive programming. The sensory-friendly program grew out of McQuown’s interactions with a family that has an autistic child.

“They love Isle a la Cache Museum because it is quiet and they can do their own thing at their own pace,” she said.

The sensory-friendly program will allow attendees to either stay with the group or explore on their own. McQuown has created prep packets so parents know exactly what their children will experience, and the kids will know what they can opt into or out of depending on their sensory issues. The program registration also has a custom question asking for any additional accommodations a child may need.

“So, there is no guessing at all and no confusion,” she said.

McQuown said she developed the senior coffee program because retirees are available during the day, and it’s a good way to keep people engaged. It’s also a good way to provide a platform for socialization because it gives people who may not be leaving the house as often a reason to enjoy coffee and conversation with their peers along with nature education.

The bilingual hike came from McQuown’s experience with Spanish-speaking students who have attended Forest Preserve programs and field trips.

“I didn’t like the idea that children couldn’t go on a hike because they couldn’t understand what someone was saying,” she said. “Bigger cities offer these types of programs, and I thought we could too.”

Engaging all segments of society

Both Gutmann and McQuown said they don’t want Forest Preserve programs to be “off limits” to anyone because of special circumstances.

“We work with the public and didn’t like the idea of being off limits to a whole family because one member of their family couldn’t handle what we provide, so we decided to do something different,” McQuown said.

It’s important to look at how the Forest Preserve is engaging all segments of society, Gutmann added.

“We’re becoming more in tune with the people we’re trying to serve,” he said. “If a child can’t see well or can’t walk, how do we get them out here? How do they get an experience? It’s not just solely about educating them, it’s good for them to be outdoors from a mental health standpoint.”

For more information on Forest Preserve programs, visit the Event Calendar at ReconnectWithNature.org.


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