Brookfield Zoo makes summer camp inclusive and fun

On day one of Zoo Camp, Nico pet a baby goat. Although my son loves animals, he had been too fearful to get close to them, so this was a pretty big step. What he wouldn’t do, unfortunately, was sit with the other kids in his group for lunch.

Camp guide

Brookfield Zoo Camp: Dates being finalized at presstime, visit czs.org/Brookfield-ZOO/Learning/Zoo-Camp

Camp time! For a list of great camps, check out the camps in the next issue of Chicago Special Parent and soon to be online at ChicagoParent.com

The Special Recreation Association is also a good place to start to find your local special recreation district and the camps they offer.

When I dropped him off on day two, one of his counselors sprang toward me, smiling, with a new plan. Instead of trying to bring Nico to a crowded table, she’d ask him to sit down first and then bring the other children around him. It worked.

Welcome to the all-inclusive, creative Brookfield Zoo camp.

Nico has Down syndrome. Too often, parents looking for summer recreation activities for children with disabilities are presented with two options: A segregated camp only for kids with disabilities or an integrated camp ill-prepared to address the needs of our children.

We’ve tried both. The latter is a disaster (and potentially dangerous). The former, when run by Special Recreation Associations, is wonderful. But the one thing they don’t do, by definition, is offer chances for inclusive play. Children, with and without disabilities, learn so much from each other, and when done right, everybody wins.

While schools are generally more inclusive now, summer can be a very isolating time for families like ours.

Camp provides specific challenges, and the easy way out is to create a segregated unit for kids with disabilities, isolating them from the general population. Brookfield Zoo chose something more difficult and meaningful—full inclusion. They partnered with the National Inclusion Project in order to train all of their counselors in adaptive play. Each counselor is encouraged to learn about neurodiversity, accommodation and the creativity needed to make an activity work for every single child.

That’s just what I witnessed on day two of the camp. A counselor had identified a problem—Nico self-isolating during lunch—and was taking the initiative to offer a solution.

When I arrived to pick up my children (I also have a younger neurotypical daughter in the camp), I couldn’t see Nico at first because he was right in the center of the throng, playing with a ball at a table with a counselor and a bunch of other campers. He was laughing. I felt tears come to my eyes.

Inclusion works.

During that first week, he played with slugs and lizards, made new friends with counselors and campers alike, and I found him happily surrounded by other children at the end of every day.

On the first day of week two, he tried to go into the wallaby enclosure. Maybe they got him a little too comfortable with all the animals.

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