DreamNight – A Night to Remember

The Detroit Zoological Society hosted more than 500 guests for DreamNight, a private nighttime event for families that include a child with special needs or chronic illnesses. The goal of this event was to provide an opportunity for families to spend time, all together, in a stress-free environment. This was the first event of its kind held at the Detroit Zoo, and we were delighted with the reception of the event as well as the outcome.

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DreamNight brought families to the Zoo from around Michigan and parts of Canada. Excited and happy faces emerged as guests walked through the front gates. Without the crowds, many were able to make observations of the animals and experience the Zoo, without being overwhelmed. Penguins were a huge favorite with kids and adults alike. Some children needed the quieter buildings to enjoy the animals who live in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, National Amphibian Conservation Center or Arctic Ring of Life.

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We saw looks of pure joy as children, for the first time, watched penguins swimming. Parents showed relief on their faces as they observed their children watching the animals or exploring the hands-on opportunities. Entire families explored activities together  ̶̶  talking and playing through their shared experiences. We were also grateful for an excited group of staff and volunteers, ready and willing to support each family as they explored the Zoo.

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Throughout the event, families enjoyed dinner, courtesy of Service Systems Associates (SSA), our catering partner, who donated a vast majority of the food and labor for the evening. Stations with hands-on activities were spread throughout the Zoo, which invited guests to explore butterfly wings with handheld microscopes or play with sand in front of the camel habitat or weigh out food for an otter’s diet. Face painting, donated by Kaman’s Art Studio, was also available for all who attended. Our Zooper Hero mascots celebrated with us, and were loved by the families in attendance. Many children danced along to the music from a live band and watched a sensory-friendly version of the 4-D movie in the theater.

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We had an amazing time meeting these wonderful families and getting to know them. The Detroit Zoological Society strives every day to ensure that our entire community is welcomed within our organization. We have recently been certified through the The KultureCity® Sensory Inclusive™ program, which helps us to think strategically about how we can prepare guests before they arrive and provide a positive experience while they are here. Staff and volunteers have participated in training to be aware of our guests needs and learn strategies for supporting them during their visits. Sensory-friendly bags, which contain headphones, fidget items and a feeling thermometer, are available to be checked out to use throughout the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We look forward to hosting future events like DreamNight and ensuring that all families can experience the Detroit Zoo.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Nature Play at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo

The Belle Isle Nature Zoo’s backyard is undergoing a transformation from au naturel to a natural playground area. While we believe it’s beneficial for our native flora and fauna to have natural places to grow wild and free, we also believe the same is true for local children!

What began as an ordinary space with a lot of potential is becoming an extraordinary space with a lot of possibilities for families to stay and play. While the playground environment remains filled with natural materials, the area now provides an inviting opportunity for children to exercise their imaginations, develop a sense of exploration, and enjoy some physical activity outside. Physical, mental and social health benefits flourish as a result of time spent outdoors, and we are working on designing a space that will sustain and support our guests as well as our environment.

Loose items made from natural materials inspire creative play – a balance beam from a fallen log offers a challenge of skill and concentration of gross motor skills, and a trail of tree stumps is just right for hopping, skipping, or even to be rested upon by visitors of all ages. People-sized nests are constructed and stocked with nature’s toys: sand, pebbles, stones, and “tree cookies”, which are slices of tree branches just perfect for construction play. A wooden teepee stands tall, waiting for hide-and-seekers, pretend campouts and all the creative games our small guests with big imaginations may bring.

Sensory activities are also in the works: Natural looms will build fine motor skills with a chance to use plant material to weave designs. Bamboo chimes and natural drums will inspire our natural musicians to play to the rhythm of the seasons, and colorful textural elements will reflect the beautiful palette of the natural world.

As the occasional chipmunk scampers through the playground and the birds call out their daily activities, they are at home in the natural environment (we’ve left plenty of natural “wild” spaces for our non-human animal friends around here!). Our goal with this playground is to create an opportunity for children to cultivate a sense of comfort and connection in outdoor experiences. Playing outside in nature – with nature – can help children gain respect for their environment and better understand their own place in it. And while the natural play supports the development and strength of our children, the sense of ownership they develop stands to strengthen the future stewardship of our natural world, which is vital to the health and sustainability of our planet.

We invite you to visit the Belle Isle Nature Zoo to check out our natural playground work-in-progress, hop on some logs, feel the textures and hear the sounds of nature. Tell us what you think!

– Amy Greene is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Belle Isle Nature Zoo.