How Do Peopl with Vision Impairments . . . Visit Children's Museums?

I have had several families ask me about how their visually impaired child (which includes both blindness and low vision) can enjoy visiting a children’s museum, and how they can plan a positive and fun visit. On my recent trip to Austin, I was able to visit a children’s museum called Thinkery and explore the different exhibits to figure out which ones would be most enjoyed by children with vision impairments. As part of my summer fun series, here are some tips for visiting children’s museums with a vision impairment.

What is a children’s museum?

According to the Association of Children’s Museums, “a children’s museum is defined as an institution committed to serving the needs and interests of children by providing exhibits and programs that stimulate curiosity and motivate learning.” The exact topics each museum covers may vary, but exhibits almost always incorporate some form of science, technology, engineering, art, and/or math. Museums are often designed for children of all ages, though may also have a set age range, usually six months to twelve years old.

Museums and the ADA

Museums are required meet or exceed standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to accommodate guests with disabilities. According to the ADA website from the US government, “privately operated museums are covered as public accommodations under title III of the ADA. Museums operated by state or local governments are covered by the ADA's title II; and museums that receive Federal funding are also covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.” Some examples of ADA accommodations include space for wheelchairs, captioned media programs, and large print signs. Guests cannot be turned away from a museum because of their disability.

Check hours with Google's Popular Times feature

It’s important to check hours before visiting somewhere, but something users might not know is that Google can display how busy a museum is in real time and display trends that determine the museum’s peak hours based on the day of the week. This data can be accessed simply by running a Google search for the museum and looking at the bar chart at the top of the results.

Screenshot of Google's popular times for Thinkery Museum.

Look for special hours

Many children’s museums have special early morning hours for children with disabilities. Sometimes there are disability-specific programs, such as for autism, or generalized disability programs that are inclusive of all types of disability. These hours may take place once a week or once a month, and information can be found under the “accessibility” section of the museum website or on the event calendar.

Look for activities with light

One exhibit I thought was really awesome was a light table/light wall that allowed users to play with blocks that light up on the wall without flashing or falling over easily. It reminded me of a giant light table, which would be perfect for children with cortical vision impairment (CVI) or other vision impairments. Other fun activities include painting with light by moving hands across a special wall, playing underneath blacklight, and similar.

Image of an activity with a black background, lights and what appears to be colorful, lit pegs.

Photosensitivity concerns

While exhibits with light can be fun, I strongly recommend avoiding exhibits with strobe lights if light or photosensitivity is a concern. A common fixture at children’s museums is the “frozen shadows” style exhibit, which feature multiple flashing lights, with the resulting faded shadow being difficult to see for guests with vision impairments. Exhibits usually have a strobe light warning outside of them, or museum staff can provide information upon request.

Adventures with sound

Activities with sound can be super exciting for kids with vision impairments, or super overwhelming. Children’s museums often feature a music wall that has different types of poles that can be hit with mallets. Other common exhibits feature animal sounds, sounds of weather, and other noises that may be frightening. Everyone is different, but it’s important for parents to understand that almost all children with decreased vision have an increase in sound sensitivity, and may get irritated if there is a lot of auditory stimulation. On a similar note, read ten things that a student with low vision wants their elementary school teacher to know here.

photo of an outdoor music wall: various lengths of PVC pipes that create music.

Water play

The water play areas often feature large shallow pools of water, bubbles, and opportunities to play with other floating toys. I noticed a lot of kids gravitate towards the water wall because it has a really interesting texture and they had to worry less about getting wet. It’s important to use a blindness cane when navigating these areas, as they are often slippery and easy to fall down in. If kids don’t want to use their cane, they should use a friend as a human guide instead- read more about being a human guide here.

Embrace tactile activities

Activities that feature getting to touch or feel objects are almost always a hit! One interesting exhibit I went to featured a wall of different types of pipes that children could connect and create a path for a ball, which would be lots of fun for a child with a vision impairment. Other fun tactile activities include making and playing with slime, creating and interacting with 3D art, playing in a sandbox, and more. Speaking of tactile materials, learn how to create your own tactile images with everyday objects here.

Image of a featured wall: various PVC pipes, hoses, connectors, etc. that can be moved and attached to pegboard type wall.

Answering children’s questions

There’s bound to be curious children who have never seen someone with a blindness cane or tinted glasses before. When I volunteered with children, I developed a series of answers for common questions that children would ask me about my condition that are age-appropriate and concise. It’s a good idea to go over these before going to the museum, and to remind children that they have the right to be at the museum just like everyone else. Read my post about answering children’s questions about my vision impairment here.

Have fun!

Children’s museums are fun for children of all ages, including those with disabilities such as vision impairment. By having an understanding of what exhibits are the most enjoyable for kids, families can plan a visit that is not only inclusive, but fun for everyone.