Metro Parks and YMCA partnership creates special bonds for families

JEN ROSA, Prairie Oaks Naturalist 

Kids blow bubbles at an Outdoor Adaptive Adventures program. (Lisa Williams)

As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I saw the need for inclusive programming outside in a park. Sometimes I go places and my son has a meltdown or he gets excited and jumps up and down and flaps his arms. When this happens, people stare and give you funny looks. There are many opportunities to attend a sensory friendly movie or go to COSI and be around other families like mine, but nothing for special needs children that teaches them to love nature and encourages them to spend time outside.

I thought to myself, why is that? Outdoor play and exploration are essential to the healthy physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of all children. Allowing them to connect outdoors and have access to natural environments is especially important for children with disabilities. In particular, given a child whose senses may be impaired, the exploration of nature’s sights, smells, textures and sounds is incredibly stimulating. The sensory experience of outdoor spaces not only enhances these children’s appreciation and awareness of nature—it contributes to their overall health, happiness, social growth and well being.

I wondered what if I could offer programs specifically for these families. I came up with some programs and contacted people in my network and no one came! It was going to take a lot of work to convince families that going to a park would be a positive experience that they would enjoy.

Canoeists on lake for an Outdoor Adaptive Adventures program at Prairie Oaks. (Bryan Knowles)

Unfortunately, children with special needs often face various challenges to accessing and connecting outdoors. Families may be hesitant to visit parks due to physical and social barriers, past negative experiences or fears of the unknown. They don’t know what trails are accessible or where the bathrooms are located. Little things that most people take for granted can be huge barriers to a family with special needs. Parents worry about breaking out of routines or become anxious of what others may think or say if their child is behaving differently than what may be considered socially acceptable. Children are uneasy about their physical capabilities or fear bullying from peers.

Then one day I got an email from Amanda Biel who works for the YMCA Early Childhood Resource Network + (ECRN+). For 30 years, ECRN+ has been serving special need families. Amanda saw one of my programs advertised and thought that we could build something together. With my nature knowledge and familiarity with the parks and her ability to reach out to families as a trusted family advocate, our amazing partnership began.

We have partnered to fill the gap and connect families from all walks of life to the natural world. Through our programs, families can build their circles of support and connect with one another through nature, in a friendly, safe and welcoming environment. Children with disabilities can play alongside their peers, participate in positive physical activity, discover nature at their own comfort level and overcome challenges.

We offer programs in Metro Parks all year long. Creeking and Fishing, Holiday Craft Workshop, Welcome Spring Walk, Night at the Nature Center and Owl Walk and Roll, just to name a few. This year we hosted the second annual Outdoor Inclusive Adventures at Prairie Oaks. Families were treated to a day of canoeing, fishing, creeking, crafts, a rock climbing wall and lunchall for free.

This year we also started a monthly hiking club. The Happy Hikers Club meets at a different Metro Park on the first Saturday of each month. Together we walk a trail and then enjoy some snacks and socializing with other families.This is a great way to explore all 19 Metro Parks while making friends and getting some exercise.