From the October 2019 issue

Sensory-Friendly Play POND Makes Theater Accessible for Kids

The University of Michigan and Michigan State University are teaming up to create sensory-friendly Play POND for kids, set to debut in summer 2020.

Photo by Eric Bronson

Sitting through an entire movie or stage show as a child with sensory differences, like autism, can be overwhelming.

That’s why architect Sean Ahlquist and Michigan State University playwright Dionne O’Dell had the idea to combine their talents to craft a theater experience specifically for kids who might be overstimulated by a traditional play. It’s in the workshop stages, aiming for a summer 2020 debut.

In their version, called POND, actors work with children one on one, allowing for complete participation and control over the flow of the story.

Breaking the fourth wall

“It’s a common misconception that we would dim the lights or lower the music – they’re not vulnerable to everything,” says Ahlquist, associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan and father to Ara, a 10-year-old with autism. He says the most important thing is to give the children control of their environment.

“The children are absolutely active participants,” he says. “It’s not a perfectly structured flow. If a child wants to hear the same song again, they can do that.”

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Some of the ways they’re tailoring the show include training actors to work with children with sensory differences – what to do if a child becomes overwhelmed, for example – and sending out information about the play in advance.

“We send pictures and stories about the characters beforehand so when a big pelican jumps out, they’re not surprised.”

Special considerations

What makes a play sensory friendly? Here are a few factors that go into it:

  • The play is tailored to be a one-on-one experience with the children and actors.
  • Children are gently guided in the play to learn positive lessons.
  • The play is structured to get kids up and moving, specifically to exercise different motor skills they may need to develop.
  • The creators add small tasks into the play, like collecting magic pennies, for children who might not be able to understand the full plot of the story.

Pre-debut workshop

POND is still in the early stages and won’t be ready until next summer. In the meantime, a spring 2020 workshop is in store to test interactions even more.

If you have a child with sensory differences who you would like to have participate (it’ll be in Ann Arbor or East Lansing), email ahlquist@umich.edu.

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