Board Game and Pizza Night for Tweens of All Abilities

Today's guest blog post was written by Paula Shapiro.  Paula is currently a Youth Services Librarian at the Deerfield Public Library in Deerfield, Illinois.  Thank you, Paula, for making this fantastic contribution to the SNAILS community!

I always have loved working with tweens. I think they are interesting, funny, insightful and often trying to find a way to fit in.  With that said, as most of us can attest, it can be tough to be a tween! There is not a lot of programming out there for tweens with special needs and I believe that this type of programming is important and beneficial to kids of all abilities. With the help of our wonderful teen librarian, Nina Michael, we started to plan our first program: Board Game and Pizza Night For Tweens of All Abilities.   

The vision was to have it be a buddy-type program where we paired up neuro-typical tweens with tweens with special needs.  Here is the  visual schedule (from Boardmaker) that I made for the evening:

How did we get this program off the ground? 
“It takes a village” is what comes to mind. Nina and I went to one of the area middle schools where we met with the social worker, teachers and student council meetings. We passed out flyers, spoke to parents, visited classrooms, and put the information on the district website. We were very lucky to have such a supportive and welcoming district.

Truthfully, I had no idea how many kids were going to show up. When 20 signed up, Nina and I were blown away.  We were thrilled (and a little nervous!).  We did not know which kids had special needs and which were neuro-typical.  I didn’t want the parents to have to fill out a lot of forms/questionnaires.  I wanted this program to be fun for the kids as well as not be a hassle for the parents. They fill out enough forms.

I sent an email to those who had signed up and asked who wanted to be a buddy and who was in need of a buddy. I also asked if anyone needed any type of accommodations.  From these emails, I learned that some of the tweens were non-verbal, one needed help eating, one was in a wheelchair, and a few were on the spectrum. I also learned that not all the kids wanted to be buddied up.

As we all know when planning programs, flexibility and being open to try new things is very important.   And from this, we can learn and grow, right? Well, for me, panic and fear came before learning and growing! My neat and tidy plan of buddying up the kids was not going to work. I didn’t want to force anyone to be a buddy. So we went to Plan B: we brought in some high schoolers to help out.

The result?   
It went so far past my expectations. The kids had a great time. Everyone was kind and helpful.  Almost everyone who left asked when we were going to have another event.  It was truly was one of the most memorable nights of my career! 

Why did it work? 
It worked for many reasons: amazing partnerships, parental and school involvement, wonderful tweens, and dedicated high school volunteers.

I learned so much from that night. I learned that there is a huge need for this kind of programming.   I learned that the high school volunteers played a vital role in the evening’s success. They assisted those who needed extra help and were great role models.   I learned that every single tween in that room benefitted from the night. Many of the kids who attended weren’t the “cool kids” (by middle school standards; by my standards they were the coolest kids ever).  We had tweens who were homeschooled and from private schools.  I learned that I will keep this model of not assigning specific buddies.  Some of those in attendance had never interacted with people with special needs.

This program was a wonderful opportunity for kids who didn’t feel ready or comfortable enough to have a buddy on their own.  It created a more safe and fluid environment.  Everyone interacted with different people. It truly felt like a safe zone which was free of judgment. I don’t think that happens very often for these young people.  Kids of all abilities need a place they can feel comfortable and this fit the bill.