I love being able to give families of students with special needs the opportunity to participate in Jewish milestones and traditions like any other family. This year was the 5th year that we hosted an accessible Purim carnival for our students. Each year, we build a carnival with accommodations and care so that our students will not feel overwhelmed and can participate in some way in all of the activities.
Here’s how we did it:
We prepared the students for what to expect before the event. The week prior to the carnival, students read social stories about what to expect at a Purim carnival. We also showed the students photos and videos from the previous year. They learned about what activities and games will be available and what the rules are for each one.
On the day of the carnival, we kept the routine in school familiar. When families arrived at the carnival, they went to their classrooms like they usually do. Students were greeted by their teachers and given a packet with a schedule for the day and stickers which showed pictures of the games and activities available to try. Students were encouraged to look through the choices and select the ones that they would like to try. Then they picked the stickers which showed those activities and built their own activity schedule for the day.
The carnival was spread out in three rooms. One room had gross motor activities like bowling, mini-golf, a hamentaschen toss and a moon bounce. Another served as a quiet break room with bean bags, music on headphones and puzzles and a third room offered crafts, sensory stimulating snacks and a “sensory garden” full of great tactile experiences. The games and activities were run by familiar Gateways’ teen volunteers and each station had clearly marked instructions with visual supports showing students the rules and steps to playing each game. There were also strategically laid out social stories for difficult moments like “how to keep personal space while waiting in line” or “what to do if I don’t win a game.”
Crowds and loud noises were kept to a bare minimum. Activities had simple accommodations, so that everyone could participate (i.e., bowling had a simply made ramp for kids who have trouble swinging their arm and releasing a ball). And, while there were games, prizes and refreshments, there were no winners or losers or exchanging tickets for prizes. The day was simply about making choices, spending time with friends and family, trying new things and feeling safe enough to take risks.
What I love about our carnival is seeing students successfully navigate what could otherwise be an overwhelming experience. Having fewer crowds, simple accommodations for games and allowing the children preview the options with written out expectations in child-friendly language using pictures and colors can make a carnival accessible to all students. I love when I hear that families who were never able to go to a Purim carnival had a wonderful, calm experience and were able to share in the joys of Purim just like any other Jewish family.
We hope that you will take steps to use some of these suggestions and make your Purim carnival more inclusive, so that all your community can feel welcome.
Visit our online Holiday Resource Center as you prepare for your Passover programs.
Nancy Mager is the Director of Jewish Education Programs for Gateways in Boston.