December 2007: Museum Outreach Program Allows Kids to be Kids

A student from Laurel School participates in an outreach program

Amazement Square, in partnership with Laurel Regional School,
Lynchburg, Virginia

2005 Museums for America


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Dr. Mort Sajadian
Executive Director/CEO



To cross the vivid violet threshold into Lynchburg, Virginia’s Amazement Square is to enter a world where art and adolescence colorfully collide.

For the students of Laurel Regional School, who live with severe mental and physical disabilities, it is to enter a world of acceptance, learning, and fun.

"This isn’t like a lot of other situations where kids will come in and tell you what they did, say, over the weekend," says Debbie Elliott, Director of Laurel Regional, which caters to students in five surrounding counties with severe physical and mental disabilities.

"The communication isn’t always the same. But you know when they’ve had an Amazement Square experience because of the excitement in their expressions. It’s just awesome to hear and see them convey how excited they are about these experiences."

Amazement Square is not your typical children’s museum. And a visit from Elliott’s students, to be sure, is not your typical field trip. But Amazement Square’s program for Laurel Regional School, funded in part by a 2005 IMLS Museums for America grant, is about trying to make those trips as typical as possible.

Judging by the spirited symphony of instruments being played in the Listen to Rhythm exhibit on a given visit, the explosions of kaleidoscopic color brushed, rolled, and slathered into striking murals and portraits, and the smiles and peals of laughter, it‘s working.

"When we created the museum, we felt that it was important to serve children of all backgrounds and abilities," says Dr. Mort Sajadian, Amazement Square’s executive director. "The mission of a children’s museum, of course, is to serve children. But that can be a very general statement. We incorporated into our philosophy…kids who are special as well, so that we could provide the kinds of hands-on activities and programs that could better serve them."

In 2002, Amazement Square put this philosophy into action through "Everyone is Special," a yearlong exhibition designed to promote better understanding of disabilities and those who live with them. With the cooperation of regional educational institutions and advocates for the disabled, the popular exhibition featured simulation exercises and activities, allowing visitors to experience the world as someone with a hearing, visual, or physical impairment.

"They were able to understand that a disability label may be a medical diagnosis, but that it does not define one’s personality," Sajadian says.

The exhibition would help prepare Amazement Square and the public for what the museum was set to do next.

So moved were Sajadian and the exhibition’s backers by the public response to "Everyone is Special," they decided to extend its reach.

Visits to facilities and schools for the disabled led them to Laurel Regional, a school whose 68 students, aged 4-22, include those with autism, brain damage, Down syndrome, and impairments that often mean daily reliance on feeding and breathing tubes. In Laurel, they identified a golden opportunity: to work with school officials, not only to develop a curriculum and activities that met Virginia’s rigorous Standard of Learning requirements, but also to leverage the museum’s resources to allow the students to be exactly what they were – kids.

Over the coming months, Sajadian’s staff and school officials would develop biweekly workshops for students, often using materials from Amazement Square’s exhibitions. From horticulture to regional geography, the Olympics, Japanese culture, and the study of outer space, each of the interactive sessions was designed to encourage academics, imagination, and physical movement.

They also included occasional field trips to Amazement Square on days when the museum was closed and the visits could be held in a controlled environment.

For Sajadian and school officials, however, the goal was clear: to use the public response to "Everyone is Special" and the gradual development of Laurel Regional’s students to build a relationship between them and the community.

"It’s so often the case that these kids go to school and are basically put away in a corner away from the public," Sajadian says. "It would be so much easier for us to just bring our tools and suitcases and all the bells and whistles to their classroom. But the curriculum is just one element of what we want to accomplish.

"The other is to better and more dynamically educate the public and put them at ease, so that we can get these students to interact with the greater community and experience a new social environment. They would not have had this opportunity otherwise," he continues. "There are some parents who are embarrassed to have their kids in a public setting. That’s wrong. We need to have these students interacting, so they can live as normal a life as possible and have a sense of belonging."

Over the next couple of years, Amazement Square and Laurel Regional School would fine tune their programming, upping the number of hands-on sessions and using new technology aimed at stimulating the students’ senses and ability to interact.

Students explored basic musical concepts on real instruments in the museum’s Listen to Rhythm exhibit. They learned about farm animals and pets in the Big Red Barn and through partnerships with local zoos and Humane Societies. The Paint Box exhibit, meanwhile, encouraged them to render their own masterpieces by painting on glass walls.

In 2006, Amazement Square used its Museums for America grant to purchase state-of-the-art adaptive technology. This equipment, known as the Snoezelen Concept, works together to project light and simulate sunlight, fireworks, clouds, seascapes, dawn, wilderness, and different shapes. Water bubble columns teach cause-and-effect and allow students to control items within their environment, while a wall consisting of 15 different textures provides different tactile sensations. Chalk and paint rollers attached to wheelchairs and walkers, meanwhile, have allowed students to paint murals, make prints and engage in pogo painting – artwork featured last year in Lynchburg College’s traveling gallery exhibition, "Shifting Gears: Young Artists with Disabilities."

"We have so many students here who come from low-socioeconomic homes, and this presents them with an opportunity they wouldn’t ordinarily have to visit an outstanding museum and to take part in hands-on activities," says Elliott. "It’s wonderful to see the social interaction. You always know when it’s Amazement Square day because the kids are excited. They recognize the staff coming in from the museum and you’ll see them giving them high fives."

That interaction has extended beyond the staff.

School and museum officials tasked with documenting students’ development point to dramatic progress in their ability to communicate, follow instructions, and focus on tasks. So much so that field trips to the museum – once only performed on days when it was closed – now include public days, alongside visits with classes from area public schools. Recently, administrators also began allowing parents to accompany their kids and take part in activities with them.

"One of the most significant accomplishments I have noted is the way we have been able to integrate the students into the museum," says Sarah Hamilton, the museum’s director of school and outreach programs. "Even with additional excitement, we have noted a decrease in negative behavior, fits, and seizures which were common due to overexcitement and over-stimulation. The visits continue to become more positive as the students become more acclimated to the museum environment."

Sajadian agrees.

"No one even thinks twice about it anymore," he says. "When we were still sensitizing the public, we used to let them know the days when we would have a Laurel School class at the museum. We don’t even need to do that anymore. They immediately reacted in a way that was so positive. You could see from smiles and body movements that they were actually intermingling with the other children. It has become such a regular part of everyone’s daily lives."

The program shows no signs of slowing. In addition to disability awareness courses and specialized training now offered at area public schools and colleges, Amazement Square recently extended the reach of "Everyone is Special" to include Hutchison Early Education Center, a pre-school for inner city Lynchburg students with learning disabilities.

"For a lot of the kids down in this region, there are very few services available when they finish school," says Cindie Allen, a classroom teacher at Laurel Regional. "In my years of teaching, I have always tried to get my kids out in public and to interact with daily life."