Hamill Family Play Zoo celebrates 15 years of fun

Every week Desiree Weber packs up the car with her three kids and heads to the Brookfield Zoo. While Gabriella, 4, Mateo, 3 and Alyssa, 1, love seeing the animals, what really brings them back week after week is the Hamill Family Play Zoo, where adventure comes to life in the world of their imagination.

You are invited!

The Hamill Family Play Zoo will host a birthday bash June 15 with live music, scavenger hunts, zoo talks and more.


“It’s a birthday party for our zoo, and we want everyone to come help us celebrate,” says Mark Freedlund, play programs supervisor at the Hamill Family Play Zoo.


For the rest of the year on the 15th of each month, the play zoo will hold special activities 10 a.m.-4 p.m. that include such things visits with zoo professionals, special art activities, participation in animal training or a parade.



They pretend to be veterinarians and give medicine to stuffed animals, they get their faces painted, they create original artwork, play outside, help water the plants and explore the zoo from a whole new perspective.

“We absolutely love it,” says Desiree, who lives in Downers Grove. Each year instead of a gift, Desiree says she asks her in-laws for a membership to the zoo. “It’s like the gift that keeps on giving.”

As the Hamill Family Play Zoo celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, officials say they are proud of the experiences they have built for families like the Webers and the 4.5 million other guests who have visited since June 2001.

“When children see an adult doing something, they want to help, they want to do it right along with them. Here at the zoo we have all those opportunities,” says Mark Freedlund, play programs supervisor at the Hamill Family Play Zoo. “It’s a zoo within the zoo.”

Kids can dress up like a zookeeper while watching the real zookeepers care for the animals, they can help nurse a (stuffed) alligator back to health or pretend to be the zoo director for a day.

But it’s not just fun and pretend. Kids are learning.

“A lot of people think of education as what goes on in the classroom, but this field of informal education that goes on in zoos, museums and aquariums is so important,” Freedlund says. “We see children as scientists discovering their world, and we are helping them do that.”

Back when the Hamill Family Play Zoo opened, it was the first of its kind.

The goal at the time was two-fold, says Dave Becker, senior manager of learning experiences at Brookfield Zoo. First, to bring the spirit of active involvement with the zoo to a younger generation. Second, to figure out how to plant lifelong roots of empathy toward conservation and environmentalism in children from an early age.

The Hamill Family Zoo launched a movement. In the past 15 years, Brookfield has been the place for educators, zoos, museums and aquariums all over the country to visit and learn about creating an interactive exhibit for children, while Brookfield Zoo officials have traveled to the Dominican Republic and Argentina to share their expertise.

Just within the Chicago area, employees from Morton Arboretum, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum have visited the Hamill Play Zoo while developing their own children’s play areas.

The idea of creating a place where play and learning are intertwined was a key aspect of developing the Play Zoo, Becker says. And, while kids are playing, they are learning a lot of important lessons.

“It helps children develop a sense of empathy for other living things,” Becker says. “… This is a way for children to feel like they are connected to the nature around them,” he says. “We hope it lays the groundwork for a lifetime relationship with the natural world and a deep understanding that they are able to take care of the world around them.”

Going forward, Becker says the Play Zoo hopes to help families develop nature play experiences in their own homes and neighborhoods, as well as increase its training of educators around the world.

The zoo is also focusing more and more on inclusivity. With the indoor and outdoor spaces and a variety of sensory activities, Becker says they have seen the zoo become a supportive place for children with disabilities and those on the autism spectrum. Since 2002, nearly 100 high school students with developmental disabilities have volunteered at the Play Zoo through its Good Works program to help learn skills that will help them as adults.

“There is so much to do there and it’s just so much fun,” Weber says, adding that she and her family plan to keep visiting every week for years to come.

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