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  • Evelyn Perez-Horita

    Evelyn Perez-Horita lives in Lincoln Square with her husband, Brian, and 8-year-old daughter, Lia. In all of her spare time, she loves to hold 6am family dance parties!

    Surviving summer with your special-needs child

    Great activity ideas for special-needs kids, or any kind of kind, this summer in Chicago.


    I have an 8 ½-year-old little girl, Lia (pictured, above), who has been diagnosed with severe intellectual disabilities, sensory processing disorder, autism and hypotonia, and is non-verbal. I do not, nor will I ever, claim to be the resident expert in any given field except when it comes to knowing my own kiddo. With that said, I know how frustrated and bored my little darling is going to be this first week of summer vacation. My husband and I had to figure out how to keep her busy, entertained and regulated for 76 days! Yikes!

    Lia attends a Chicago Public School. Unfortunately, she, along with many other children with developmental differences, does not qualify for ESY (Extended School Year, a.k.a. summer school). To add insult to injury, we were too late to get her signed up for any affordable summer camps. We promised ourselves we will be more on our game next year! 

    Our first thought was OMG we are NEVER, EVER going to survive this summer. She is already showing signs of dysregulation and frustration. Because we are not direct descendants of the Rockefellers, we had to begin researching and planning. Alas, there is some hope, not for all 76 days but we may just survive this summer yet!

    My husband and I have decided to sign her up for as many activities as possible that are not only affordable but that would be accepting of kiddos like Lia. We started building a list of feasible activities. We concentrated on free activities because let’s face it, why pay a lot of money for something if there is a possibility your child will have a difficult time and not stay for the activity? We also included anything we would need to pay for but felt was well worth the money. Here's our list. What's on yours?

    Free summer activities:

    • The beach - We’ve been going to Foster Beach for years but recently started exploring others like Loyola Park and 31st Street Beach.
    • Chicago Park District pools - We visit many free pools and sprinkler parks in the area. We especially like River Park pool because when the staff is on a safety check break, we play in the attached sprinkler pad while waiting for the pool to re-open. This is key! We also like Chase Park, Hamlin Park and Gompers Park.
    • Chicago parks - Maggie Daley is our favorite! There are also a number of accessible parks for kiddos with physical challenges.
    • Kids Bowl Free - Register on this site and your kids can bowl two free games every day throughout the summer at Waveland Bowl or Lawn Lanes. Great for those not-so-great weather days!
    • Kohl Children's Museum (Everyone at Play) - On select Sundays, the museum is open early (and is free!) for families with children with special needs.
    • Free museum days – Most Chicago museums offer free days, even in the summer. Lia loves the Museum of Science and Industry the most!
    • KEEN - Kids Enjoy Excercise Now - This non-profit provides free sports and recreation programs for young people with disabilities. In July, all KEEN families are invited to Wisconsin for a free, fun-filled day of water-skiing, swimming and more!

    Worthwhile memberships and programs:

    • The Morton Arboretum - The garden has a great kids' area with some membership-included fun events throughout the year. The membership is reciprocal and offers admission into other garden venues around Chicagoland.
    • Whealan Pool This Forest Preserve pool only costs $7 for adults and $5 for kids (3 and under are free). A membership includes three different Forest Preserve pools.
    • Brookfield Zoo The special exhibit "Dinos and Dragons" features animatronic dinosaurs and live reptiles—even a komodo dragon. You can also see the new wolf pups. So darn cute!
    • M*NSAR (Maine-Niles Association of Special Recreation) – M*NSAR has many wonderful programs for our kids. We are taking swimming once a week throughout the summer.
    • AMC theaters – This movie theater chain offers sensory-friendly films (lights are up, sound is down, kids can run around and play in the aisles) on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month.

    Finally, we will fill in the gap with extra therapies, potty training class, playgroups, special needs carnivals, festivals, holidays and birthdays. Our calendar is filling up quickly but we are still not there. That’s ok—we are allowed some down time. I hope this helps you fill in some free time this summer. Now go enjoy your wonderfully special kids!


    Related articles: 

    How to advocate for your special-needs child in CPS

    Dreaming of a 'normal' summer vacation

    This is how to treat a child with special needs

    Evelyn Perez-Horita

    Evelyn Perez-Horita lives in Lincoln Square with her husband, Brian, and 8-year-old daughter, Lia. In all of her spare time, she loves to hold 6am family dance parties!

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