Special Needs | Outings + Activities | Family fun

10 Special Outings for Seattle Kids and Families with Special Needs

If you have a child with special needs, you know those needs extend beyond the controlled confines of your home and child’s school. Everyday trips to the grocery store and neighborhood park may carry special challenges. Visiting a busy museum can quickly overwhelm a child with sensory issues, and a typical playground might be useless to a kid who gets around with the assistance of a wheelchair.

I’ve been there, and as parent to a child with an autism spectrum disorder, I feel strongly that kids with disabilities deserve more options when it comes to fun outings. 

Fortunately, the number of destinations catering to the unique needs of children with disabilities is growing all the time! We’ve gathered several indoor and outdoor outings in the Seattle region that accommodate and even cater to children with special needs.

1. Seattle Children's Playgarden

All children deserve an opportunity to play, and making that possible for kids with disabilities and special needs is the mission of the Seattle Children’s Playgarden. This fully-accessible public playground engages kids with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, hearing or vision impairments or other disabilities in ways a typical playground does not. There’s a real veggie and flower garden to dig in and explore, chickens in a coop, a tree fort and musical sculpture, a foam play area and rock scramble, indoor learning facilities and more.

Everything is fenced in (a huge relief for parents of kids of the autism spectrum). Like most public city parks, the playground is ADA-accessible but takes the concept of accessibility a step further as it was designed specifically with kids in wheelchairs in mind, from countertop heights to playground equipment. Even the treefort is wheelchair accessible. Evening classes are also offered quarterly: Choir class is free, and kids can join the Art with Arnie class with a suggested art supply donation.

Hours and cost: The Seattle Children’s Playgarden is free and open to the public year-round after 1:30 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends. Check the calendar for current hours and class schedules.

Location: 1745 24th Avenue S. in Seattle, 206-325-5576

2. Seattle Children's Museum

One of many local museums to introduce sensory hours in the past few years, the Seattle Children’s Museum opens its doors early for sensory hours the first Saturday of each month. From 8:30–10 a.m., the museum dims the lights and minimizes sounds, creating a setting friendlier to kids who benefit from a quieter, less-crowded environment.

Hours and cost: First Saturday, 8:30–10 a.m. Admission is reduced to $3 per person, and sensory hours tickets must be purchased in advance online. The museum opens to everyone at 10 a.m.

Location: 305 Harrison St. in Seattle, 206-441-1768

3. Pacific Science Center

Starting January 10, 2015, Pacific Science Center will have special sensory hours every 2nd Saturday from 8-10 a.m. To date, details are still TBD, so check their website’s calendar for the most current information. Additionally, the museum has several guides to help children on the autism spectrum enjoy the experience, including a sensory guide (click here to view it) that helps families identify specific exhibits that meet their sensory needs, from noise level to visual stimulation, and points out quiet areas available for breaks.

The center also gives hand stamps for same-day re-entry should your child need a break away from the building. The general exhibits and both IMAX theaters are fully ADA accessible, wheelchairs are available to borrow at no cost, and aides are free when accompanying a guest with a disability.

Hours and cost: Cost for non-members is $11.50–$19.50. Regular hours are Monday–Friday, 10 a.m–5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday-holidays, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. 

Location: 200 2nd Ave N. in Seattle, 206-443-2001

4. Seattle Public Library story times

Sensory story times are hosted at the Ballard and Columbia City branches of the Seattle Public Library, hosted each Saturday from 10:15-10:45 a.m. Registration is not required but are limited to 12 families on a first-come, first-serve basis. These special librarian-led story times are for kids ages 10 and under who have a hard time in large groups, are on the autism spectrum, or are sensitive to sensory overload.

Seattle Public Library Special Outings Sensory Storytime Greenwood Branch Librarian Woman Smiling Reading Book

The librarians read preschool-level books, and also engage the kids with songs and movement so it’s appealing for children who prefer not to sit still for long.

Cost and hours: Free, Saturdays, 10:15–10:45 a.m.; Preregistration is no longer required. Up to 12 families are welcome on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Location: Columbia City (206) 386-1908, and Ballard (206) 684-4089

5. Seattle Sensory Garden, Rose Garden

Located in the northeast corner of the Rose Garden at Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Sensory Garden is an oasis in the city. The garden’s design and features stimulate the senses of sight, sound, touch and movement — all based on the concept that kids with impairment of one or more of their five senses may find special enjoyment here because they may have enhanced perception of their other senses. You’ll move through the garden on accessible pathways and pass raised beds, Braille guides, water features, places to hide and climb as well as sensory plantings.

Cost and hours: Admission is free and the garden is open to the public. Like them on Facebook to get event and work party updates.

Location: 700 N. 50th St. in Seattle, 206-999-8370

6. AMC Sensory Friendly Films

AMC Theatres has partnered with Autism Society to bring special Sensory Friendly Film showtimes to locations across the country, including four in the greater Seattle Area. At these showings, auditoriums will have their lights up, the sound turned down and audience members are invited to get up and dance, walk, shout or sing. 

istock kids at movie theater family night out rainy day

Cost and hours: Price varies by theater. Screenings are typically at 10 a.m. Current movies and showtimes are listed here (on the right).

Locations: Cascade Mall 16, Kent Station 14, Lakewood Mall 12Woodinville 12

7. Children's Museum of Tacoma

The Children's Museum of Tacoma teams up with SPECIAL Families of Pierce County to host a monthly evening program for families with children who have special needs. On the second Thursday of every month from 6-8 p.m., families with children who have special needs are invited for a fun family night out at the museum, and admission is free.

Parents will love the opportunity to network with each other over coffee and tea (a great opportunity to swap therapists’ phone numbers!), and listen to a featured speaker on topics related to special needs. Kids will love the chance to have a sensory-friendly and supported play experience in the museum galleries with trained museum staff and volunteers.

Cost and hours: Admission to second Thursdays is free; hours are 6–8 p.m. Childcare is limited and available by advanced registration only: RSVP for childcare here.

Location: 1501 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253-627-6031

8. Miner's Corner

Miner's Corner, Snohomish County's first universally accessible park, was just opened in November 2013. The park emphasizes a full sensory experience in natural surroundings.

It meets requirements for full storm water dispersion, which means at least 65% of the site is natural vegetation. The park makes use of this natural beauty by placing the playground right in the middle of the woods, and has numerous play spaces set along park pathways and the created intermittent stream and wetland to encourage interaction with nature.

The park features a 10 foot tall wheelchair accessible lookout tower, and numerous play spaces set in the surrounding woods to encourage interaction with nature.  The playground, park paths, sport courts, and bathrooms are all designed to be accessible. The park also has lawns and open areas for games or picnics. Creative topography and mounds shelter the park from outside noise

Miner's Corner Snohomish Playground Special Needs

Cost and hours: Free, Open 7 a.m. to dusk. Note: Snohomish County Parks practice a "pack-it-out" garbage philosophy to conserve resources, so plan accordingly.

Location: 22903 45th Ave S.E., Bothell, WA

9. Hands On Children's Museum (HOCM)

HOCM is the largest children's museum in the Pacific Northwest. They have a sensory friendly guide available and host Special Nights of Play for families with kids on the autism spectrum or with other special needs. 

Hand's On Children's Museum Outdoor Sensory Garden in Olympia

Among the best sensory exhibits are the "The Good for You" gallery, which has a garden that kids can harvest in summer, and the "Move It!" gallery, where a wind tunnel, flying and building station, and 25-foot air maze encourage physical play and gross motor movement. Finally, explore the Outdoor Discovery Center's hiking trail, lighthouse lookout, working garden and naturalist cabin. Check out a review from when the museum first opened, and another of the Outdoor Discovery Center.

Cost and hours: $10.95 for Ages 1-61, $8.95 for Seniors 62+, free for kids under 12 months, Open Tuesday–Saturday, 10–5 p.m.; Sunday–Monday, 11–5 p.m.

Location: 414 Jefferson St. NE, Olympia, WA

10. Meadow Crest Playground, Renton

This brand new playground in Renton was designed to be accessible and fun for all ages and abilities. It sits next to Meadow Crest Early Learning Center, home to an inclusive preschool, and North Highlands Neighborhood Center. Features include oversized musical instruments, an interactive water table, a nature play area with logs and sand, and a wavy walk for wheelchairs or tricycles complete with a play gas station and stop signs. 

Photo credit: Robb Williamson, Williamson Images, and Design Concepts
Cost and hours: Free and open to the public all day on Fridays and weekends, and after 4:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday. The park is also open every day during the summer and on holidays when preschool is not in session.

Location: Meadow Crest Early Learning Center, 1800 Index Avenue NE, Renton, WA

Lauren Braden is a Northwest writer with a focus on recreation and local travel, and mom to a 5-year old “aspie” that is the light of her life. She blogs at nwtripfinder.com.

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