Crowdedness, certain smells and lighting, too much noise or a particular repetitive sound — these elements may overwhelm some individuals, affecting their experiences at work, school or play.  

Considering the challenges public spaces present for neurodivergent people, the team at CuriOdyssey, a San Mateo science playground and zoo, has created Sensory Sunday. The inaugural free, two-hour event this weekend is for children, families and adults seeking an alternative to the packed, noise-filled conditions of popular destinations such as museums. 

CuriOdyssey Chief Programs Officer and Director of Education Jessa Barzelay says, “The intent [of Sensory Sunday] is to truly provide the type of experience and space that will make CuriOdyssey feel as welcoming and as, in some ways, typical of an experience that anyone could have here, just with some fewer crowds and quieter spaces.” 

Founded in 1953 as a junior museum and later renamed Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education, CuriOdyssey was rebranded in 2011, and has since expanded its science and nature educational programs, exhibits and, correspondingly, audiences.  

“We’re really centering on equity and inclusion when we’re developing programs, when we’re inviting people into our space and when we’re considering what different people need and want from CuriOdyssey as an organization,” says Alexis Bullock, CuriOdyssey’s education operations and communications manager. 

On Sensory Sunday, visitors will have the opportunity to learn more about the animals at CuriOdyssey in San Mateo. (Courtesy CuriOdyssey) 

With support from sponsors Chance to Excel, AbilityPath, Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area, Magical Bridge Foundation and PARCA (Partners & Advocates for Remarkable Children & Adults) Auxilary, the Sensory Sunday program offers experiences and activities that accommodate those with sensory processing differences. 

Bullock explains, “We’ve really thought about how we can transform the museum to have quiet spaces such as a sensory safe space that allows for dimmer lighting, lower noises and fidget toys.”

Such thoughtfulness also extends to pre-visit preparation via the online story “A Visit to CuriOdyssey for Sensory Sunday!” The first-person narrative gives an overview of what to expect at the event and includes plenty of visuals.

To ensure Sensory Sunday visitors’ needs are met, CuriOdyssey will close to the public from 3 to 5 p.m. Reservations are required, and there’s a cap on the number of people attending. This week’s initial event, already at capacity, is closed. The next Sensory Sunday is Sept. 17; after that, it will become quarterly, on Sundays in December, March and June. 

Sensory Sunday attendees will be able to freely explore the indoor and outdoor spaces and participate in whichever available activity interests them. 

Bullock comments, “They’ll be able to check in and see a map that’s keyed by different sensory experiences and where there might be more experiences for sensory-seeking folks versus more experiences for sensory-avoidant folks. They’ll be able to navigate the museum as they want—there’s no set path.”

Fidget toys, also known as fidgets, will be available to use in a designated break room on Sensory Sunday; visitors can also check out a “fidget backpack” at the museum’s entrance. (Photo by JL Odom) 

Kits with noise cancellation headphones and “fidget backpacks” with fidget toys (also known as fidgets) such as stress balls and slime will be available to check out.  

Programs include science activities guided by CuriOdyssey education specialists and volunteers or meeting animals in volunteer-led “animal encounters.” 

There’s also the “Whooosh!” physics-in-action playground, created in partnership with the Magical Bridge Foundation, Whooosh! and other Magical Bridge outdoor playgrounds in the Bay Area are built with inclusivity, individual well-being, neurodiversity and disabilities in mind.  

CuriOdyssey partnered with the Bay Area-based Magical Bridge Foundation to create an inclusive, physics-in-action playground. (Courtesy CuriOdyssey) 

The options don’t end there, though: “We’ll have different kinds of spaces throughout the museum with different tactile experiences, a sensory table that is being made by our exhibits team and a story-time and a coloring space for people who want either more guided sit-down time, or free-for-all coloring time just to take a break from walking around the museum and zoo,” says Bullock.

It’s clear that the CuriOdyssey team has taken the time to understand the preferences and needs of neurodivergent individuals, giving them opportunities to learn and thrive. 

“CuriOdyssey’s values around integrity and community and making sure that we’re really centering the needs of the individuals who we’re seeking to serve is really what it comes down to—and being intentional about our design,” says Barzelay.

The next Sensory Sunday is from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 17 at CuriOdyssey, 1651 Coyote Point Drive, San Mateo. Regular museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. most Tuesdays-Sundays. Admission is free for infants 17 months and younger, $21.95 for children, students and seniors, $25.95 for adults; parking is $6. For details, visit