Kelly Johnson and her son love visiting the Brookfield Zoo, but even though they visit often, it can still get overwhelming for her son.

That’s why the Brookfield mom was pleasantly surprised to discover a new addition in the Hamill Family Play Zoo: a brand new quiet Sensory-Friendly Family Room with animal-themed sensory toys and an inclusion resource center offering noise-canceling headphones, visual schedules and social stories to help families get the most out of their visit. 

Not as noticeable, but perhaps most significant, is the hiring of Inclusion Specialist Lauren Reeder who works with families to create an enjoyable zoo visit geared to their individual needs. 

Brookfield Zoo’s overall commitment to inclusion has been long-standing and gradually increasing for more than a decade with its Zoo for All initiative, said Dave Becker, senior manager of learning experiences at the zoo. But a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services allowed the zoo to ramp up its efforts to make sure all families get the chance to connect with nature and see that the zoo is a safe, welcoming space for them no matter what their needs might be.

“Families are really excited about it,” Becker said.

In the sensory room, families will find a bean bag chair, love seat, light bubble tube filled with fish, weighted comfort creatures and fidget toys. Lights dim or brighten as needed and provides a calm oasis before heading back out to enjoy the zoo.

“During our recent visit we went in the sensory room just to get away from the noise and people for a few minutes because my son gets overwhelmed. He liked sitting in the quiet room and playing with the sensory toys,” Johnson said.

Reeder said as word-of-mouth about the effort spreads, she’s getting a lot of ‘thanks for doing this, now we can come out as a family and not feel judged.’ “It’s a sense of pride that we can do this for our families,” she said.

Planning is already under way for more; the zoo is working with an advisory council to identify needs and families’ feedback is encouraged. “We want to incorporate it and think about ways to help,” Becker said.

“It just seems natural that we’re doing this to just be able to have our guests come spend more time at the zoo and come as a family. It’s a really awesome thing,” Becker said.

The zoo has three open houses planned for families with special needs to check out the new additions: March 17, April 12 and April 22.