Our Day At The Akron Zoo: A Truly Inclusive Experience

This past weekend, our family did something that we never do – we went to the zoo! Any parent(s) of kiddos with sensory needs know that large spaces, full of people and sound, with lots to see and do, can make it difficult to downright impossible for some kids to enjoy. 

For my oldest son, his brain struggles to process sensory input, which is unfortunate because life is one big ole sensory experience. As adults we have helpful tools such as logic and reasoning, but kids understand their world purely through their senses. So, when their brain can’t make heads or tails of all that sensory input, things tend to get complicated, confusing, and overwhelming. For everyone involved.

When Theo is in a new environment with a lot of uncontrollable stimuli, his brain becomes like a highway during rush hour traffic; with construction; and a major accident. Theo’s behavior in those situations isn’t really the point of this post, but suffice it to say that we’ve had enough difficult experiences in the past to pretty much steer clear of festivals, zoos, fairs, etc. We just don’t go.

But recently, a friend sent me a link with the Akron Zoo’s announcement that they were now sensory inclusive. We had been hearing for years that the Akron Zoo was the best zoo to take kids, and now it seemed like it was a great place to take ALL our kids. We had to check it out.

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We arrived at the zoo and checked in at the welcome center (the double doors to the left, directly across from the gift shop), where they handed both my boys (because, brothers) their own sensory back pack. Inside each backpack were fidget toys, noise canceling headphones, sunglasses, and a cue card that kids could use to indicate emotions and feelings of overwhelm. (We forgo the weighted lap blanket but man, that would have been nice for when Theo was little and still stroller bound.) The bags are free, but be prepared to leave an ID or other form of collateral until you return the bag(s).

And then we were off!

Marketing Manager and woman behind the new Sensory Inclusion initiatives – Elena Bell – was our tour guide. She showed us around the zoo where we could find the many simple but important accommodations they’ve created for all families, but especially families with special sensory needs. (Sensory needs aren’t limited to children! These  accommodations a great for guests of all ages and varying sensory needs.)

Bell showed us the Guest Comfort Station where kids and parents can go to escape  the crowds, diffuse a meltdown, or talk through difficult emotions using the cue card. It’s also a cozy little spot to change diapers (for diaper wearers of all ages), breastfeed, or care for other needs that you prefer to be met away from the public eye.

Also around the zoo are signs indicating Head Phone Zones and Quiet Zones. The Head Phone Zones are areas that tend to be loud with large congregating crowds. Theo and Oliver both enjoyed using their headphones in all of the indoor exhibits and at the carousel (more on that later). The Quiet Zone signs are simply used to indicate that this is an off the beaten path area where you might enjoy a brief escape from the crowds. Benches are always located in these quiet spots!

The Akron Zoo also developed their very own “sensory story” that they created to help you prep your kiddo for their visit to the zoo. Sensory stories have been HUGE for us. I’ll link to that story at the bottom of the page.

As we walked, Bell told us about the sensory needs in her own family, and how zoo guests had responded well to past exhibits that were soothing, such as the recent Journey to the Reef exhibit. So when The Birmingham Zoo reached out to her to see if the Akron Zoo would be interested in incorporating their newly developed Sensory Inclusion features, she knew there was a real need.

Bell worked with an organization called Kulture City to train staff on the new initiatives continues to work with staff to raise awareness and implement strategies that help all guests enjoy their time at the zoo. Because, as Bell puts it, “Everyone should get to come to the zoo.”

And truly, these strategies helped us – all of us – have an absolutely wonderful time together at the zoo – a sentence I honestly never expected to type.

Theo carried around a fidget toy 100% of the time. No lie. There was always something in his hand. He especially loved the soothing therapy ball. I would glance over at him from time to time and his hands would be busy kneading and working that ball over like you wouldn’t believe. But his face and body was completely relaxed. Having something to fidget with in a healthy and productive way kept his mind from spiraling out of control.

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The noise canceling headphones were the real hero of our story, though. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never looked in the face of a kid when he is on sensory overload, but all I can tell you is that Theo had a look of quiet and content on his face when he was doing things that normally would have had him completely melting down inside. He was calm. He was present. And, best of all, he enjoyed himself.

Oh you guys. What a gift.

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The highlight for me was getting to ride the carousal with Theo and Oliver, something I didn’t think either of them would ever do: Theo because of his sensory needs, and Oliver because he tends to live on the cautious side of life. But with the noise canceling headphones on, both boys were able to block out all the extra distractions that could cause anxiety and simply live in the moment of fun. And you guys – WE RODE THE CAROUSAL! We did it! No tantrums or meltdowns or erratic behavior. No yellowing or hyperness or crawling up walls or mommy. Just two cool, collected cucumbers. Having the time of their life.

And one mommy who was so happy and proud she could just burst.

We did, you guys. We went to the zoo. And it was wonderful.

info on Akron Zoo accessibility here
sensory story for the Akron Zoo here

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