Recreation – Behind the Scenes
Planning Sensory Santa
Sensory Santa has been a full circle moment for me. I am a parent of two special needs children. My boys are now in their twenties. When they were small, we did not participate in large events in the community because my younger son would have meltdowns from sensory overstimulation. Children with special needs may have sensitivity to lights, sounds, smells, crowds of people, having to wait in lines, etc. Large community events are full of these stimulating elements.
I wanted to take our larger events at Dover and create opportunities for our families with loved ones with special needs to feel included. But how can we create that experience? What does it look like? What is included? What do we take away? How can we take our existing event and tweak it to allow more members of our community to participate? And if we were successful in creating this experience, would people come?
These were all questions that ran through my head after COVID. In 2020, we had a drive through Christmas event. We also did Dashing Through Dover, where we brought Santa to individuals homes. Both of these events were sensory friendly – being in your car or your home feels much safer than in a room with hundreds of people you don’t know.
In 2021, we were able to hold our Christmas event in person at Brookside Park. Santa and Mrs. Claus came on a fire truck with lights and sirens to a large crowd anxiously waiting to be the first in line. People waited in a long line that weaved around Christmas lights and decorations in the Dance Hall before they finally got to see Santa and Mrs. Claus. Some friends were not comfortable sitting on Santa’s lap, so we provided a rocking horse (Sven from Frozen). Kiddos could sit on Sven and still be in the photo with Santa. Some parents placed their kiddo on Santa and Mrs. Claus’s laps and begged them to not let go of the children until they could be secured back in their strollers. Some kiddos with special needs will try to distance themselves from things that are overstimulating by eloping (running away).
After watching these types of interactions happening over the course of the event, I knew I had to make changes to help more people feel welcome at the Christmas in the Park event (now renamed Brookside Christmas).
So here was the plan: A night was to be dedicated specifically for our families with loved ones with special needs. Families would sign up for a time slot to see Santa. We limited the number of families per time slot. This eliminated the over stimulation of the long line. We switched the lighting in the building with Santa to blue which has been known to be soothing. The amount of twinkling lights was reduced. Santa did not arrive on a fire truck. We did not play music. The building absorbs sound well, so the only noises heard were the humming of the motors of the inflatable decorations, the heater and the ceiling fans and the voices of Santa/Mrs. Claus and the families attending the event.
Santa and Mrs. Claus were selected because of their backgrounds in working with children with disabilities. We brought in characters from popular movies – all of the actors had experience working with people with disabilities. We had a professional photographer donate her time to take photos of the children with Santa. She has a child with a disability, so volunteering her time was important to her. We found that families were enjoying the time spent with their children and would forget to take photos. We included all the activities that the big event would have for these families. So, the families would experience the same event, but in a way that was better suited for their child.
After making these changes and creating a new event, would people come? Would the ideas on paper equal a positive experience for the families on the day of the event? They did come and our hearts were full.
In 2022, Dover Rec hosted our first “Sensory Santa” event. We welcomed over 30 families. In 2023, we offered the event again and also welcomed 30 families – some returning and others brand new. All of the adjustments we made were appreciated by the families. They were able to have a special moment with their kiddo in a space that was welcoming and safe. And, thus, my full circle moment was complete.
We did not reinvent the wheel with this event. We just customized it to better suit people with different abilities. Making the changes did not impede the experiences of any of those in attendance. We just adapted to be more inclusive of our friends with special needs.
Dover Rec also offers a Special Needs Egg Hunt at BunnyFest in the spring. We are also looking into our other events to make them more sensory friendly. If you would like to help us, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always looking for ways to make our events more inclusive, so we welcome suggestions from the community. And we are looking for volunteers to help us bring these changes to life.
Thanks – Miss Chalet