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Zoomazium to You: Including Young Learners with Disabilities

Posted by Janel Kempf, Learning and Innovation

Close your eyes, and ask your early learner to do the same. Now, imagine together a few of your favorite animals in their habitats.

What are you both seeing in your mind’s eye? There are so many options! An emerald tree boa draped over a branch in the steamy Amazon rainforest, an impala grazing on the vast plains of the African savanna, or a gray wolf and her family trotting through the cold forests of northern Canada—each one perfectly a part of their own environment.

But what if they were in an environment that didn’t meet their needs? A bright green boa unable to hide in the dry grass of the savanna, or an impala freezing cold without a wolf’s thick coat in below-zero temperatures? It just wouldn’t work.

At the zoo, we have lots of animals who wouldn’t naturally call the Pacific Northwest home. To keep them healthy and thriving, we make accommodations for them in their zoo habitats. Some of the things we do for animals are easy to spot, like the warm, humid environment of the Tropical Rainforest building, or the huge artificial vines the orangutans climb on. Others are completely hidden to human observers. Have you ever wondered why our lion pride spends so much time lounging on the rocky outcroppings of their habitat? Well, first, they’re cats, so they’re pretty lounge-y in general--but those big rocks aren’t really rocks. They’re heaters! They’re made of a special concrete sculpted to look like rocks, with heating coils deep inside. That keeps our lions toasty warm in our cool Seattle temperatures, so they can be sure to get all their naps in comfortably.

Hasani the giraffe was born with a disability and needed special therapeutic shoes to help support him. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo
Sometimes an individual animal needs a little extra support. When giraffe Hasani was first born, his keepers and vets noticed right away he was having trouble standing up. He was diagnosed with a disability in his back legs, but within days our exhibits team had built special therapeutic shoes to help support him. As he grew, his condition improved quickly. He only needed the shoes for a couple of weeks, then he was ready to run and play like any other baby giraffe!

Sometimes people need a little support, too. Maybe dark Seattle winters aren’t good for someone, so they need a bright light in their house to help them feel happier. Someone else might need a stepladder to reach the highest shelf in their kitchen. Another person might have limited eyesight, and need a specially-trained guide dog to help them get where they’re going safely.

Woodland Park Zoo wants everyone to enjoy their time here! Rooted in Rights, part of Disability Rights Washington, has made some videos featuring local kids with disabilities having fun at the zoo. Check them out here:

Julian, exploring in his power chair:

Lyla, using her cane to navigate:

Hudson, enjoying Sensory Friendly Friday in Zoomazium:

Your young learners may need a few modifications to the Zoomazium to You activities we’ve shared with you over the past several weeks. We asked Lead Learning Facilitator Tany Holzworth, who specializes in making the zoo more accessible and inclusive for guests, staff, and volunteers alike, for some suggestions!

What you need: Depends on the activity, and on the child

Time: Usually, as much as you have and want

Age Range: Any young learner might need modifications

School Connections: For great information from parents with disabilities for parents of children with disabilities, see the Rooted in Rights video Parenting Without Pity:

Many of the Zoomazium to You activities are already great for children of any ability. For example, Fun with Sensory Play. For others, different children may need different modifications. 

Sensory experiences are enriching for all children. Photo by Anna Pavlin on Unsplash

Relax with Springtime Bug Yoga for children in wheelchairs: Making modifications is a very individual process. Start out by asking them some questions! “Do you want to try this in your chair or on the floor?” “Do you want help moving into that position?” “Could we try to make those positions with your hands?” Some kids may be comfortable on the floor (and even need the nice stretch!), while others may need the specific design of their chair to be well supported. All kids can participate in breathing exercises and you can get creative to help them feel included based on their comforts and needs! “Can I rock your chair back so you can look back at the sky while you breathe? Ahhhhh.” 

Children with limited hearing can feel vibrations on a drum. Photo: Woodland Park Zoo

Shake, Rattle, and Roar for children with limited hearing: Think about how you could make music for a child with limited hearing. What items do you have at home that can provide a vibration your child can feel? Maybe your young learner can hold a balloon you could hum on, or tap out a beat on. And if you’ve been to Zoomazium, you know Shake, Rattle, and Roar is as much about dancing as it is about music! Play a copy-cat dance game--when you move, I move!

Scavenger Hunt Weekend for children with limited vision: One suggestion in the previous blog was to go on a nature sounds scavenger hunt. But you can modify almost any scavenger hunt by using a device (or even a sibling!) to help someone with a vision disability participate. Play a song on your phone and place it with the item you want them to find. Or, have another family member sit with the item in their hands and quietly sing, hum, or make an appropriate funny noise!

These are just a few examples. Think creatively, and you’ll find any activity can be made accessible for any young learner! Focus on asking questions, and being flexible. For other Zoomazium To You activities as well as animal-inspired activity kits and coloring pages, visit to invite the zoo to your home.


Anonymous said…
We all have disabilities… some may be more noticed than others… yet we are all the same in more ways than we are different – everyone needs love, understanding, inclusion, emotional security (the list goes on and on)! This is very powerful and is hopefully viewed far and wide! Congratulations to the Woodland Park Zoo and the Facilitator(s) that make all this happen. I am certain it has touched the lives of many… and hope it continues to do so!!! A real feather in the Zoo's cap (so to speak) - do not ever cease being a powerful beacon of hope to so many...
Steven Linda said…
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Edgar C. Jones said…
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