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.

Belle Isle Nature Zoo – Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries are a global phenomenon. These small, front‐yard book exchanges number nearly 40,000 in all 50 states and around the world in 70 countries — from Iceland to Tasmania to Pakistan, and now, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo! We’ve joined the movement to share books, support literacy, bring people together and create communities of readers.

What is a Little Free Library? Little Free Libraries are hand-crafted structures filled with constantly changing collections of books donated and shared by people of all ages and backgrounds. Each year, nearly 10 million books are shared in Little Free Libraries.

Just a few weeks ago, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo chartered and then planted a Little Free Library and seeded it with books. We’ve already observed the community and literacy-building movement blossom into a fun and shared experience for our visitors. More than 100 books have already gone home with our guests from Metro Detroit and other neighborhoods around Michigan, as well as some out-of-state visitors. Additional books for children and adults have been lovingly placed upon the shelf, shared by friendly donors, and the collection is ever-changing.

We’ve been added to the Detroit Little Libraries map as well, supporting the 313 Little Libraries action plan toward making Detroit the Little Free Library capital of the world. The 313 Little Libraries action plan has a priority of planting libraries in areas with low access to books, with a special focus on places where children congregate, supported by research that shows access to books is a powerful indicator of success in school.

Not only might our guests find a great book to take home and read (and then return or share with friends) the Little Free Library provides an opportunity to give back. It allows people who want to volunteer in some way a chance to donate books and know that they are contributing to the literacy and leisure of their community.

One of the best parts about Little Free Libraries is that they don’t require library cards or late fees, don’t insist that patrons whisper or stay quiet, and don’t mind if you do not return a book.

At the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, we are known for being stewards of nature, providing experiences that build awareness toward our local ecological health and sustainability. We are pleased to also be stewards of our neighborhood literacy and building community, offering opportunities to share good things to read with one another. It’s truly everyone’s library, and the more people who participate, the better!

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

Education: Spring has Sprung!

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes, especially in relation to plant and animal life. Plants and animals depend on these predictable changes to know when to migrate, nest, bloom, leaf out and so much more. People celebrate phenology-related events, such as cherry blossom festivals and monarch butterfly migrations. Before weather predictions were delivered to our email inbox or through an app on our phone, people used to watch for signs in nature to know just the right time to plant their crops or harvest their fields.

Phenology is an essential part of life on earth. As our global climate changes, some cyclical changes are becoming out of sync. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies may respond to earlier-than-usual warm temperatures and find the flower blooms they rely on for nourishment may not be blooming. If birds follow warmer temperatures and return to a nesting area before the bugs emerge, they could go hungry.

Scientists are studying these changes and collecting as much data as they can from all over the world. They are counting on citizens like you and me to help. The USA National Phenology Network is a great resource to learn about phenology and how you can report observations that will help scientists track long-term seasonal changes. Project Budburst is another great resource. This online repository is limited to plants, but it has a wide selection of plant species that you can observe, record data on, and report your findings about to help scientists. Chances are you can find a plant or tree in your yard or neighborhood that Project Budburst would like information on. At the Detroit Zoo, we’re observing and reporting on the flowering crabapple trees that line the walkways by Rackham Fountain.

Each year since 2013, the Detroit Zoological Society has participated in the Journey North Tulip Test Garden project. We plant red emperor tulip bulbs in the fall and mark the area. As spring nears, we watch for the tips of the tulip plants to emerge and then we report our observations to the Journey North Tulip Test Garden database. Animated maps on the Journey North website compile data from observers all over North America to show us when spring is on the way.

The best part of participating in any of these projects is that you’ll find yourself noticing more about the world around you. Even very young children can participate with the help of an adult, creating a new generation of people relying on signs in nature, not just the daily weather report.

– Claire Lannoye Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Education: Playing with Nature

Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

In a day and age when kids and families are spending more screen time than outdoor time, the Detroit Zoological Society is working on a project to create an outdoor space your kids won’t be able to pass up!

The previous play areas at the Detroit Zoo were both retired over the past two years and a new play structure was installed in the Main Picnic Grove. Our landscape team has done a tremendous job of enhancing and adding to the play area by landscaping with native plants and installing log steppers, toad stools and climbing rocks for kids to play on.Photo by Stephen Bernard

The adventure will continue as we include more natural play opportunities in the area directly east of the play structure. Kids will be able to climb through a spider web, relax in a giant bird nest, crawl through animal burrows and engage in imaginative play throughout the area. Native flowers and trees provide shady spots and smaller pockets for kids to have quiet areas to play in while parents can still easily keep an eye on all the activity from the comfort of benches.Photo by Ashley Boylan

We’re really excited about this new play space and we hope you’ll visit us early this fall to experience all it has to offer!

– Claire Lannoye-Hall