Iowa City Parks and Recreation hosts sensory-friendly Halloween event

On Friday, Iowa City’s Parks and Recreation department held a sensory-friendly Halloween event on Friday before its Halloween carnival to include neurodivergent individuals.


Isabella Cervantes

Families gather to take a look inside the Iowa City fire truck at Robert A. Lee Recreational Center on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. The center held a sensory friendly Halloween event where games and food were available for kids.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

Iowa City employees opened the doors of Robert A. Lee Recreation Center to the public on Friday for a sensory-friendly Halloween Carnival. The event provided neurodivergent people, along with anyone who can easily get overstimulated, with a calm atmosphere to enjoy the annual Halloween carnival before it opened to the larger public later that evening.

Iowa City Parks and Recreation program supervisor Michelle Wiegand organized the event in accordance with the department’s efforts to include individuals with sensory needs. The sensory-friendly carnival focused on hands-on experiences and avoided loud music.

“The full Halloween carnival gets very, very busy, which can be a little overwhelming for people who might be neurodivergent,” Wiegand said. “Because it is such a well-loved event but can be very busy and kind of overwhelming, we wanted to make sure that other people who could benefit from that low-stim could still be a part of it.”

Families began trickling in through the parking lot where various booths representing Iowa City recreational departments were selling food and hosting games. One activity was a guessing game dedicated to sensory experience, in which players had to guess what item they were touching with their hands.

Kids in costumes flitted around the parking lot, twirling in the bubbles at the Children’s Museum booth or learning about fire trucks with firefighters and police officers. Afterward, they headed inside the recreation center for more fun activities. They were greeted at the doors by event staff and guided into the gym on the first floor.

Lining the walls of the gym was an array of games including basketball, bowling, cornhole, and ring toss. At the far end of the gym was a huge inflatable slide that kids rolled down, screaming and laughing.

Upstairs, families engaged in numerous hands-on crafts for the best sensory experiences. In one room down the hall, they could make wands with ribbons and pipe cleaners. For attendee Yolanda Sanchez’s son, wand-making was one of the best parts.

Sanchez chose to attend the event because her son is autistic and larger crowds can be stressful for him. The event brings more awareness to autism and neurodivergent communities, Sanchez said.

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“The smaller events are more convenient for them instead of being in a crowd,” Sanchez said.

Ringing the large social hall across the second floor the University of Iowa Women in STEM Ambassadors organizations set up tables. Each student at the table guided attendees through making a different craft related to science, technology, engineering, or math. A table had a craft to make Frankenstein robot hands, while another produced dazzling glitter sensory bottles that delighted kids when they were shaken.

The carnival also extended outside into the garden for a scavenger hunt. Players had to find three spooky things that did not belong in a garden. As a prize, they were awarded sensory-friendly toy spiders or gelatin worms.

The sensory-friendly carnival was just as fun for people who are not neurodivergent. Nita Bader attended the event because her granddaughter enjoys sensory, hands-on activities.

“She has loved it,” Bader said. “It’s been amazing, and the volunteers have been amazing, so she’s loved that.”

Not only did the sensory-friendly fun and games make this event so inclusive, but the volunteers and staff also made the experience a positive one to remember. Iowa City Parks and Recreation staff member Katie Bender said the staff is trained in engaging with individuals with sensory needs.

“Everyone here is good at working with different kinds of people,” Bender said.