SEND Backpacks

Photograph of sensory backpack contents from Maidstone museum

Sensory backpacks and fidget backpacks have become more commonplace in museums and are a very useful resource for families and schools on a self-led visit. They usually differ from the typical “explorer” backpacks found in museums, but with a few tweaks, there’s no reason why those can’t become SEND friendly too.

Sensory backpacks should be bespoke to your museum and help aid a visit, both for the SEND child and the group they are in. The contents of the backpack can be things which entertain the child and keep them occupied whilst the rest of the group take the time they need to enjoy the displays. The backpacks can also support the whole group and act as props to guide them around the museum. There is space for both and how they are used is not dictated.

Ideally, if a backpack can be themed to the museum’s collections and displays, then it will add novelty value and be special to the place. Including a laminated sensory map or child-friendly map which shows a floorplan with either pictures or Picture Exchange Communication System images “PECS”  is also useful.

The ability to make choices about which areas to visit and plan that is also good for some children who need to feel in control of the time and activity. Watch the film below to see a parent who worked with Maidstone Museum to create a sensory backpack that includes a symbol-based choice board. Laminated pictures/symbols from the museum’s map are chosen by the child and attached to the board to create a visit plan. This highly personalized and adaptable method means the child “curates” the visit each time and can focus on what they want.

In the film, the parent says that visits to the museum before the backpack was available, lasted no more than twenty minutes. Since using the backpack, his family have returned again many times, and their longest visit was over four hours!

These resources don’t cost a lot to create, and they can make a powerful difference to a SEND family’s visit. Their economic impact, promoting a longer dwell time and potentially greater spend in the museum, pays back an initial investment quickly.

Suggested items for a sensory backpack

  • A selection of “fidget” toys or sensory items, ideally linked to the museum collection themes
  • A puppet or soft toy to act as “guide”—connect to the museum theme if possible
  • Ear defenders
  • Sand timer
  • Rubber binoculars
  • Rubber magnifying glass or magnifying sheet
  • Photo find sheet—laminated photos of close-ups of key objects on display
  • Talking tile—recording of key sounds related to the object on display (e.g., car, plane, music)
  • Smelly cube related to the collection theme
  • Small rubber torch to investigate objects in cases or highlight parts of displays
  • Symbol choice board with symbols from the museum map, or photos or PECS symbols Widgit
  • Small board book linked to the museum’s theme
  • Drawing materials, if allowed

Sensory backpacks are a “reasonable adjustment” to broadening accessibility and should not be charged for. Your museum may wish to take a form of ID or returnable deposit when loaning the backpack and, ideally, a SEND family would be able to reserve one in advance for their visit.

Alternatives to backpacks have included smaller “bum bags” and totes, and the Postal Museum in London has postal bag versions which theme beautifully to the collection!

Here are some links to see other offerings in museums:

Also see the V&A’s guidance on designing a museum activity backpack for an overview of the process (not specifically SEND but a good overview):

And What to Put in a Sensory Backpack by Euan’s Guide: