In just seven short months, Explore & More, The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum has welcomed more than 100,000 people from 2,000 zip codes to the brand-new facility, fulfilling its promise of being a strong anchor attraction on Buffalo’s waterfront. The 43,000 square foot museum offers plenty for kids of all ages with its seven place-based educational play zones, but one of the things that makes it truly unique is how hard it works for everyone to play together - including those with developmental or learning disabilities.
The museum features hands-on exhibits that highlight Buffalo’s unique story, revealing the region’s history, geography, culture, agriculture, architecture, athletics, commerce and innovation with an emphasis on child-led play and exploration. The museum’s leaders believed they had a unique opportunity in building a new facility to create a place for children of all abilities and to welcome families who traditionally felt shut out of cultural attractions because of their children’s unique needs.
Access and inclusion are top priorities at Explore & More, to ensure that all children find a welcoming and accessible place for them and their families. The museum has considered the needs of children who may have sensory issues, mobility constraints, behavioral issues, language barriers, or other developmental or learning disabilities that make a visit to most museums difficult or nearly impossible. Instead, Explore & More developed customized visual, social, communicative, sensory, and behavioral supports so that families can experience the museum in a way that works best for them.
Families with specific needs are encouraged to call ahead to make specific accommodations for their child and can take advantage of sensory backpacks that contain items such as noise canceling headphones, sensory toys and visual supports, designed to enhance a child’s experience. A universal changing table is also available that can accommodate anyone up to 250 pounds in a private space. The museum also includes social narratives, visual schedules, visual maps, and more that make it easier to navigate the four floors and varied exhibits.
Sensory friendly rooms are available throughout the space for those who need a break from the stimulation or a place to regroup. Most importantly, staff are specially trained to work with children and their families so they can guide them through the space comfortably, work with families to address specific needs, and assist in the case of children who may be overstimulated and need a calming environment. The museum staff includes a full-time person with a focus on access and inclusion, and they have also hired individuals with special needs to provide opportunities for all and an added layer of inclusion to their team.
One of the most popular programs has been Au-Some Evenings, a free monthly event designed specifically for families with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, or other traumatic brain injuries. The evenings provide a social outlet and a means of connection for families who may have avoided museums in the past as being too stimulating for their children. Held at times when the museum is typically quieter, attendees can enjoy art projects, cooking, or other activities designed for smaller groups with their unique needs in mind.
One of the museum’s newest exhibits features a life-size tree house that encourages climbing and exploration. The exhibit is specially equipped with a wheelchair lift so that those with physical disabilities can still experience play in a tree high above the ground and be included with friends and siblings as they explore.
With a goal of being a community museum to bring children and families together, Explore & More is quickly building a following among families as a welcoming and inclusive place for all.