MNLEND Fellow Leads Creation of Sensory Tents in the Minneapolis Parks

Tue May 15 2018
Sarah Thorson (left in picture), Erica Chua (center), and Elise Niedermeier (right).

Summer is coming and city parks will soon be filled with crowds, noisy events, excited children, food, and family pets. For most people, this is a celebration of warm weather and a chance to reconnect with family and friends in the great outdoors. But Elise Niedermeier (at right in photograph), a Fellow in ICI's Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (MNLEND) program, and the ADA Coordinator for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), knows that for some people—such as children with autism—all this stimulation can become sensory overload.

"We have so many loud, crowded outdoor summer events that I thought it would be great to offer a sensory or escape tent for people to take a break," she says. Sensory tents give people with sensory processing needs a space to soothe or stimulate their senses at crowded park events. Niedermeier's MNLEND training prepared her to think collaboratively so, with an inclusion microgrant from the National Park and Recreation Association, she decided to build a project team to make MPRB events and programs more accessible. She spoke to MNLEND parent trainees after class; approached MNLEND faculty mentor Ellie Wilson, who is now director of the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM); contacted Sarah Thorson (left in picture), who is the MPRB's Therapeutic Recreation and Inclusion Coordinator; and reached out to Erica Chua (center), the park board's Community Outreach Event Coordinator.

"The connections and conversations through my participation in MNLEND all sparked this vision for what could be," Niedermeier says. The tent provides materials including scented crayons, a mini trampoline, hammock swing, calming light, and noise-cancelling headphones—all materials suggested and selected in consultation with AuSM. The tent will appear this summer at outdoor concerts and movies in the parks. A schedule for "sensory-friendly Sundays" is being developed, and MPRB staff are collaborating with MNLEND alumna Julia Anderson at the Walker Art Center and Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) to share successes and learning about creating inclusive events. MPRB also is collaborating to make sure sensory-friendly event dates do not overlap, so families have multiple options to explore this summer.

The sensory tent is tentatively scheduled to be at Music in the Parks at the Lake Harriet Bandshell on Sundays, 2-3:30 p.m., starting June 10 and running through August 19. The tent is also tentatively scheduled to be at the Monarch Festival at Lake Nokomis on September 8.