Early Open for Families with Special Needs: Explore the Fairy Tale Exhibit!

This post was written by Maria Papanastassiou, Early Literacy Services Supervisor at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library in Arlington Heights, IL. For more information about the Arlington Heights Memorial Library's services to families with children with disabilities, check out their Special Child webpage


Our library was fortunate enough to host a very successful Fairy Tale play exhibit for over two months this past winter.  Crowds of children and their caregivers enjoyed playing with the interactive exhibit pieces from open to close daily.  Due to the high customer traffic and noise levels each day, we wanted to offer an alternative time for exhibit exploration for families with members with special needs.  Our library is open daily at 9 am with the exception of Sundays when we open at noon; we chose a Sunday morning early opening time of 10:30 am to accommodate this program.   

How did we get this program off the ground?  
Because the program was occurring before library opening hours and required additional logistics, such as the involvement of staff working outside of their regular hours, I wrote up a proposal for the program seeking approval from our director to offer the program.  Needless to say, our director enthusiastically supported this pilot program.     

I worked with one of our Teen Librarians and an Information Services Librarian with a specialization in health services; we wanted to consider a wide developmental and abilities spectrum when making our program plans.   At our planning meeting we addressed considerations such as outreach, logistics, and any additional engagement activities.    

For outreach and marketing, we composed a special invitational letter to community organizations that serve youth and families with disabilities.  We additionally talked up the program at other programs serving families with disabilities.  We got quite a few registrants that way.  The program was also publicized in our newsletter and on our programming calendar. 

With regards to program logistics, we worked with our security and maintenance staff to create a plan of which doors would be available for entry, as well as how to create a welcome and accessible space.  The main areas of the library available for program attendees were our children’s department, which housed the play exhibit, and then our Teen space as a designated quiet space.  We did not provide access to the rest of the library and provided signage to convey which areas were closed.  We requested a circulation staff member to assist with any customers that wanted to check out any materials including materials we pulled such as adaptive books or toys; we lucked out in having a staff member volunteer who is also fluent in ASL! 

We decided for program registration, it made the most sense to have one person take registration information over the phone, so they could communicate about entry procedures, find out about any requested accommodations, etc.   We promoted the program with the following blurb:  

Hear ye, hear ye! People with special needs and their families are invited to explore the play exhibit "Once Upon a Time…Exploring the World of Fairy Tales" at a special time and in an intimate, quiet setting before the library opens. A quiet room outside the exhibit will be available as well for customers.  

Please register by calling (847) xxx-xxxx. Please let the library know if your party requires any special accommodations. 

I sent out an email a few days ahead of time with roles and stations for all staff helping out.  We ended up having 13 people register.  Unfortunately, none of the community groups we contacted were able to attend. 

The result?   
Even with all of our ducks in a row, we had several factors that ended up influencing lower attendance for the programOne consideration is the day of the week; Sunday mornings are often busy with families attending houses of worship or having lazy mornings.  Another more considerable consideration for families with young children was that this particular Sunday also coincided with Daylight Savings!  We learned our lesson to always double-check our dates to avoid possible conflicts such as this in the future.  Once we realized the event date and time would be impacted by Daylight Savings, staff made sure to convey that information in our program reminder calls to all persons registered for the event.   

We had four customers attend; they enjoyed having the exhibit to themselves to explore at their own pace, in their own way.   Although it was a smaller number, the families were so appreciative of being able to relax, chat with one another and be carefree in a safe and supportive environment.  Two of the caregivers expressed how the noise levels of the play exhibit were usually overwhelming for their child; they were so happy to have a toned-down time for play! The children had fun with the exhibit itself and also enjoyed doing the play engagement activity planned by our Tween librarian as part of our Play Engagement experience for the exhibit.  We chose to offer a sensory activity involving fine motor skills and exploring various textures.   

All in all, I think it was a successful program offering that provided an inclusive play experience for families of all abilities.   Even though not all registered families were able to attend, we received many positive comments from families and the community organizations we approached about how grateful they were that the library was considering their needs and the needs of those they serve by offering this unique opportunity for play, learning, and exploration.    We feel this event and other recent inclusive library program offerings have raised awareness among our customers and the community that the library is a welcoming place and is committed to hosting inclusive programs to better serve our customers of all abilities.