A to Zoo Accessibility at KidZooU Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo & Faris Family Education Center
How can you translate the moo of a cow to a child who cannot hear? How can you describe a goat to a child who cannot see?
These are the questions that the staff at the Philadelphia Zoo, along with parents of children with special needs, a volunteer committee of professionals, and funders, considered as they began the development of a new children’s zoo at America’s First Zoo. Their efforts are making it easier for families of children with special needs to participate in one of the Philadelphia Zoo’s most engaging, educational and entertaining experiences to date; a new wildlife academy that teaches children, the future stewards of our environment, how our actions can positively impact animals across the globe.
KidZooU: Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo & Faris Family Education Center opened on April 13, 2013 in Philadelphia, and with the help of area special needs community partners including: the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University, Overbrook School for the Blind, Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, and the T21 Club of the Delaware Valley, an organization that supports awareness and inclusion of people with Down syndrome, the children’s zoo’s dynamic displays and interactive learning experiences are accessible to children of all abilities.
“The opening of the new KidZooU is an extremely exciting development for us as we unite a world-view education center with an up-close and personal children’s zoo to form a new wildlife academy,” said Vikram Dewan, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo. “KidZooU is designed to appeal to both toddlers and tweens alike, and will be used as a platform to mentor the next generation of protectors of our planet.”
Elements of KidZooU, from a focus on domestic rare breed animals to the expansion of the Philadelphia Zoo’s new animal travel and exploration trail system, are serving as models for other zoos, and now the universal design elements that are making the Philadelphia Zoo more accessible could be as well.
“It is important that children of all backgrounds and learning abilities have a place where they can learn about animals and why protecting our environment is so important to the preservation of animal species,” said Dick Faris, who, with his wife, Marilyn, were instrumental in the development of KidZooU. “The education of learning challenged children has always been dear to our hearts,” Mr. Faris said at the preview for KidZooU, which was attended by students of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, where his mother was a longtime teacher. “My late mother was a teacher’s aide for hearing impaired and autistic children,” he said, “so I discovered early on the learning challenges these children face. I am so happy that experts in the field and parents of challenged children participated in the design.”
Planning discussions with community partners touched on topics such as noise and tactile sensitivity, terrain, helping families plan their visits in advance, and how best to approach a lost child. Ideas offered included everything from making water facilities convenient, clean and accessible to children who use G-Tubes for feeding, to identifying secluded spaces where families can get away for a break; from captioning videos to adding amenities such as durable, adolescent-sized changing tables in family restrooms. Other suggestions included opening the Zoo early for special needs families, accommodating special diets, and embracing high-tech solutions such as touch-screen picture menus for ordering.
“Deaf students are not that much different in the way they learn,” said Prinnie Eberle, a high school teacher at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. They need a lot of visual elements, things at their level, and to be able to touch and manipulate things. “That’s the way they communicate,” she said. Vibrating speakers can allow visitors to feel animal sounds, and using lights in exhibits, not just sounds, can also benefit the hearing impaired.
KidZooU’s interpretive signage identifying animals such as ducks, pigeons, chickens, horses, goats and sheep, features Braille, sign language and the KidZooUPix symbols for individuals on the autism spectrum and very young children. QR codes allow visitors to use their smart phones to access information in different languages. Exhibits, from the 20-foot-high centerpiece goat climbing tower to the popular Barnyard animal contact yard, are accessible to wheelchairs, walkers and special needs strollers, and buildings feature power doors. A spotting scope that soars 18 feet allows visitors to observe monkeys in the Treetop Trails.
“There are some concepts that we need sight for, and that’s OK,” said Jackie Brennan, Education and Professional Development Director of the Overbrook School for the Blind. Children can’t touch a tiger, for example, but we can describe it, talk about the colors and the size, and say it is shaped in the same way as a cat, she said. Walking a child from the head to the tail of a sculpture can help explain how big the animal is in relation to the child.
How do you describe a goat, then? Depending on the features, we can mention if it has horns, Brennan explained, and relate the beard to the beard of a dad. Features, size, behaviors, noises can all be described. We can say, “You have two legs and they have four,” she added.
Zoo staff and volunteers have received training on assisting families with special needs. For example, being in an open-air environment and not aware of what is around you can be intimidating to a child with a visual impairment. Brennan and her colleague, JoAnn McNamee, Elementary School Program Coordinator at Overbrook School for the Blind, discussed with the staff ways to bring the animals to the child in a special area that is quieter and not so overwhelming.
Something else that can make the experience not so overwhelming is preparation. Deb Dunn, Esq., is Director of Outreach and Study Recruitment for the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the mom of a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. “If it’s not accessible to them, we really cut out off a learning opportunity for them. One bad experience can make it difficult for the child to try again.” If prepared, they can enjoy the experience, she said.
A just-launched Website – kidzoou.org – created in partnership with Dr. Michelle Rowe and the Saint Joseph’s University Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support, allows for just that, with three important pre-planning tools: an interactive visual scheduler, a social story, and an accessibility map. The interactive visual scheduler enables visitors to choose in advance the exhibits and animals they want to see and then print their custom visual schedule. A three-part social story uses pictures and narrative to help families anticipate the KidZooU experience with topics including Preparing for my Zoo trip, Arriving at the Zoo, and Visiting KidZooU. A downloadable Quiet Spaces Map identifies indoor and outdoor quiet spaces at KidZooU and throughout the Zoo grounds.
It’s a great place to start the planning of your own Zoo visit and to gain more information on KidZooU’s multisensory experiences, including visual, auditory, tactile and gross motor activities.
“People of all ages enjoy the zoo,” said Mr. Faris, “but it is our children who love it the most and benefit the most from being here.” Thanks to the efforts of the Philadelphia Zoo and the special needs community partners that worked along side them, the new KidsZooU is inviting and accessible to all of our kids.
If You Visit
KidZooU: Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo & Faris Family Education Center is the newest addition to America’s First Zoo. The Philadelphia Zoo is located at 34th Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia’s historic Fairmount Park.
For more information visit philadelphiazoo.org
Highlights at KidZooU
Goat and Kid Tower
Goats are super climbers, and in an example of animal interaction throughparallel play, KidZooU features a 20-foot-high goat climbing tower, accessible through a ramped pathway, so children can see goats up in the air and practice climbing just like they do.
Rare Breeds Porch
Through rare breed goat and sheep exhibits, children will learn about rare breeds of animals and the Philadelphia Zoo’s conservation of these beautiful and endangered domestic animals.
Here, children can engage in animal care such as grooming and feeding.
Three conservation stations featuring butterflies, budgies and fish, teach about water conservation, recycling and saving energy. Exhibits demonstrate the relationship between human behaviors and the result they have on animals in the wild. Guests will learn how reducing water and energy use and recycling impacts animals all across the world. Children will be encouraged in good environmental manners and be able to practice behaviors they can take home.
Tiny Tot Barn
A farm-themed area designated for children up to age three will provide the Zoo’s youngest visitors and their caregivers with a soft and safe place to explore.
A make-and-take activity station will allow children to build animal habitats for home, such as butterfly boxes, toad abodes, and bird strike prevention ornaments. A magnetic wall creates a storytelling zone for children using magnets with visual images and words.
The following community partners participated in the development of KidZooU:
A.J. Drexel Autism Institute • ASCEND – The Asperger and Autism Alliance for Greater Philadelphia • Autism Inclusion Resources • Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Autism Research • Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, Inc.• Overbrook School For the Blind • Pennsylvania School for the Deaf Saint Joseph’s University Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support • Sohn Grayson Autism Consultants • Springbrook Farm • T21 of the Delaware Valley
- Encourage Traveling for All Without Limits
- Free Access Pass to America the Beautiful
- 10 Places That Offer Special Days for Special Needs
- Top 5 Children’s Museums That Are Fun for Everyone!
- Traveling Tips for Parents of Children with Special Needs
- Traveling with Special Dietary Need
- Travel Tips: Making Fun Memories
This post originally appeared on our May/June 2013 Magazine