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Features

Sensory-friendly discovery time

Will County’s forest preserve rolls out new inclusive programs

Children with autism are invited to a special program in mid-March, hosted by Forest Preserve District of Will County.

Isle a la Cache Museum, which is normally closed on Mondays, will open for a special “Sensory-Friendly Day: Animal Discovery,” program from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Monday.

The program is designed for families with children ages 12 or younger who have sensory issues, including autism. No other visitors will be allowed in the museum for this event.

Registration is required by Saturday. To register, call 815-886-1467.

Another program, “Bilingual Hike,” scheduled for 9 to 10:30 a.m. June 27, at Hammel Woods – Route 59 Access in Shorewood 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 in the a news release from the district. “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.”

These 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 in the news release.

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 in the news release.

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 in the news release. “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 in the news release.

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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