Making Space for Inclusivity at the 14Y

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As the Inclusion Program Manager at the 14th Street Y, it is my privilege to welcome children with special needs into our community through our KOL Program, and help make the 14Y a more inclusive space for all families.

We have so many exciting and engaging activities for children of all ages and abilities, including After School, Youth Sports, Holiday Camps, and more. With all the stimulation that our programs offer, sometimes children can benefit from a space where they can relax, recharge, and enjoy some quiet time. With that in mind, we’ve created a new relaxation space geared towards children with special needs and open to all children in 14Y programs.

We were inspired by the idea of a sensory room: a special room designed to engage people’s senses that can be used as a therapeutic tool for people with special needs. Sensory rooms have been proven to help children on the autism spectrum be more comfortable in their environment, connect more effectively with their instructors, and interact better with their peers. With this in mind, we converted a space at the 14Y into our version of a sensory room, which is a relaxation room. We added child-friendly furniture, warmer lights, and a chalkboard wall. We also brought in quiet activities and toys to engage their senses, like stress balls, coloring books, modeling clay, and tabletop games. And we are continuing to add new elements that will make the room into more of a full sensory experience for children.

For students in the KOL Program, we use this space as a lounge — another area where they can hang out and engage with their peers in a comfortable, low-key environment. If they start to feel overwhelmed in their classroom, this space serves as an alternative where they can still engage in activities on their own terms. Our counselors also use this room for one-on-one time if they feel they need a quieter environment to better connect with a student.

While this space is designed to help children with special needs, we find it’s also valuable for children who are enrolled in our After School Program who occasionally have difficulties adjusting to the loud, exciting atmosphere of larger group activities. The relaxation room gives After Schoolers a safe space to take a deep breath and regroup before rejoining their classmates. Since the introduction of the relaxation room, our counselors have seen fewer tantrums from After Schoolers, and find that children are much more willing to return to their classes after spending some quiet time there.

We are happy to bring this new space to our students with special needs and all children at the 14Y. It is an important step towards making the 14Y a more inclusive and welcoming community. We’ve already seen that it has a positive impact on our students, and we hope that, as we continue to add more sensory elements to the room, they will continue to find safety, comfort, and relaxation in this space.

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