On Feb. 11, the City of Bellingham Parks and Recreation department hosted a sensory-friendly hour from 2-3 p.m. at this year’s Valentine’s Day party in the Bloedel Donovan Community Building. It was the city’s second sensory-friendly event for kids.
The sensory needs of kids have recently become a topic of conversation between schools, parents and event planners. Spaces are becoming more aware of over stimulation as well a needs by being more welcoming towards accommodations like fidget toys that children may need to stay focused or headphones and quiet spaces they may need when overstimulated. These additions are becoming more accepted as basic needs and are easily implemented.
Families were welcomed by event planner Rosa Caldwell, adorned in a pink onesie, alongside a table of volunteers ready to celebrate with vibrant pink and red decorations, a photo booth, prizes and an array of paper crafting activities. Outside, families could enjoy a small park with a view of the nearby swimming pier on Lake Whatcom.
Caldwell, the education programs and activities coordinator for the City of Bellingham, said the goal was to create a space that's safe, supportive and understanding.
“That way, people don't feel judged or uncomfortable, and it's a little bit less foot traffic than it would be later on in the day,” she said.
Orbana Solomon and her husband James Reitz are raising two children, Tala and KJ, who are on the autism spectrum. She heard about the event on Facebook and thought it would be good for her family to connect with other parents and children who have autism.
“Since both the kids are on the low spectrum of autism, we felt it was a good event for them,” she said. “I haven't really known anything about autism; we're just new into it.”
Bellingham resident Tasha Henry Kerr spent time at the event with her wife and daughter Arlo, and said it was nice to connect with other families after isolation due to COVID-19.
“It's really great to have these kinds of spaces available for kids and families,” she said. “It's nice to see people branching out and getting their kids out there to see other kids.”
Emmanuelle Finchman, an early childhood and development assistant professor at Western Washington University, said it’s important to provide children with a variety of sensory experiences.
“Recently, we're seeing a lot of connections being made looking at brain research and just how sensory experiences contribute to brain development in different ways,” Finchman said. “[It’s important to be] aware of how children might be responding differently to different sensations.”
In October 2022, Western student Rebecca Bailey reached out to Caldwell hoping to provide sensory-friendly resources for the community. Bailey and Caldwell worked together to add an hour of sensory-friendly activities to the city’s yearly Halloween event. Out of the 400 attendees of the event, one-third came during the sensory hour.
Prior to COVID-19, the city also partnered with the Whatcom Museum to run a Sensory-Friendly Sunday program. There are plans to relaunch the program in the spring to continue providing these spaces for the community.
The City of Bellingham’s community events offer headphones for overstimulated visitors. Sensory toys are rented from the Science, Math & Technology Education (SMATE) library at Western to test what toys and activities interest the kids the most. The addition of the sensory hour welcomes people of all ages to engage with the games and enjoy an understanding environment. Other sensory acknowledging events include those like the Sensory Friendly Santa at Bellis Fair Mall during winter put on with Autism Speaks or The city's Boo at Bloedel during Halloween.
“Having that extra space and time, which is maybe a little quieter, maybe a little more room to move around, can be such a benefit for a lot of kids and families,”Finchman said.
Other sensory friendly events have the opportunity to arise with the celebrations for upcoming holidays.
Jase Picanso (he/him) is a city life reporter for The Front. He is a third-year student majoring in Public Relations. His work focuses on local events, organizations, resources and community perspective and experiences on current world topics.
You can contact him at Jasepicanso.firstname.lastname@example.org