Tips for Visiting the Iowa State Fair for Kids with Different Sensory Needs

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Tips for Visiting the Iowa State Fair for Kids with Different Sensory Needs

The Iowa State Fair is full of activities including flashing lights, smells from food and barn animals, crowds, and a variety of different sounds. For kids (and adults) that are sensory sensitive and/or experience anxiety, it can feel overwhelming. Luckily this year there is a sensory-friendly morning. Here are some tips for visiting the Iowa State Fair for kids with different sensory needs.

Develop a schedule

Some children thrive by having a schedule for the day. This helps them know what to expect and helps them transition from one activity to the next. It also can help them feel more in control. Prepare your child by talking about the fair, show videos, and discussing the schedule for the day. If possible, have your child assist with the day’s itinerary by picking a few must-see activities. Use the Iowa State Fair app to make your schedule. While at the fair you can use the app. This helps to prepare your child for the next activity and help prepare them for when you will be leaving to go home.

Bring snacks/drinks

If your child only eats certain foods and is unable to tolerate other food textures, eat a good meal before attending the fair. Iowa State Fair guidelines state you can bring food for those with dietary restrictions as well as unopened bottles of water. Bring snacks so if your child is hungry during the outing they can eat familiar food. You can also use the app to see a list of foods and pick items to try ahead of time. If your child is bothered by smells, try eating away from the other food vendors.

Attend during the Sensory Morning

In collaboration with ChildServe, the fair’s first Sensory Morning will take place on Wednesday, August 16th, 2023. Modifications will be in place in some areas to reduce sensory input such as decreasing sounds and lights for a more calming experience. Other attractions will open early at 8 AM for an hour until open to the public at 9 AM to reduce crowds and stimulation. The full itinerary for Sensory Morning can be found here.

Attend during a less crowded time

Weekends and evenings are often the most crowded. Visit right when it opens at 8 AM on a weekday or the last Sunday. The weather is notoriously hot this week and so attending in the morning will help from overheating. Many kids that have sensory needs have difficulty with extreme weather such as significant hot or cold. Consider attending the day before the fair officially starts to see the animals and some of the food stands so there will be less of a crowd. Plan to spend a shorter amount of time, a few hours versus all day to prevent overstimulation and fatigue.

Find a quiet space to decompress

During the Sensory Friendly morning on August 17th, a Calming Room will be open and staffed from 8 AM—12 PM in the Robert G. Horner and Sheri Avis Horner Service Center. However, this room can still be utilized for the duration of the fair by request through the First Aide Station. You could also try taking a break in one of the air-conditioned buildings like the Walnut Center or Varied Industries buildings. Outside sit next to the pond in the DNR Courtyard or in the shade of the Discovery Garden to watch the fish in the pond. Viewing plants and water features are often calming and stepping away from the bright lights and sounds can help with regulation.

Avoid triggers

Try to avoid triggers or accommodate for times your child may feel uncomfortable. Sudden and unexpected sounds as well as lots of background noise can cause kids to feel overwhelmed. Bring noise canceling headphones if they are bothered by sounds or provide music with headphones to listen to while waiting in line. Provide sunglasses and a hat to decrease glare and a sensory toolkit such as fidgets or other comfort items that they already like to help with calming. Try to provide breaks before your child becomes overstimulated.

Activities for the sensory seekers

Some kids seek lots of sensory input during the day. Kids that love fast movements may enjoy the rides in the Thrill Parks (spinning, moving up and down), and the Giant Slide. Kids that enjoy water may have fun in Spray Park. Kids can also climb and jump on the playground at Children’s Hill.

Iowa State Fair, Iowa State Fairgrounds, Nothing Compares, Des Moines, Iowa, Summer

Many families look forward to the Iowa State Fair every year. There are so many activities, different foods, and exhibits to appeal to everyone. These tips may help your child feel more comfortable and enjoy their time at the fair. For Iowa State Fair activity ideas check out the Iowa State Fair activity guide for kids.

If you or your family member have sensory preferences and strategies that you use for attending the fair, please comment on your ideas below!

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L is an occupational therapist turned (mostly) stay-at-home mom. She has worked with adults to young toddlers and has a special interest in early childhood development targeting fine motor skills, feeding, sensory processing, and coordination. She loves incorporating this knowledge with her own two little boys through play. When she’s not running after her little ones she enjoys traveling, cooking new recipes and eating chocolate from her secret stash.

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