An Inclusive Environment Zoo-Wide for Children with Special Needs

The National Inclusion Project has partnered with the Chicago Zoological Society to implement the Let’s All Play training program for Zoo Camp, a summer camp for youth. This partnership will allow all children, regardless of ability, to learn and become familiar with wildlife and conservation.

Let’s ALL Play is a successful recreational inclusion model that encourages community inclusion. Children with and without disabilities come together to participate in recreational activities such as swimming, arts and crafts, community service, physical fitness and more.

This research-based program aids in inclusion efforts for children with special needs, including physical disabilities, autism, sensory processing disorders, and attention deficit disorders. Through training, staffing, and scholarships, Let’s ALL Play gives these children the same experience as children without disabilities.  

Zoo Camp, which is accredited by the American Camp Association, serves 1,700 children each summer. Campers ages 4 to 14, divided into five groups by the latest completed school grade, explore animals and the natural world in fun, engaging, and age-appropriate settings through activities, encounters, games, art, and science inquiry (Gehron, 2015). The Chicago Zoological Society identifies potential summer Zoo Camp participants by working closely with local organizations that also serve children with disabilities. In addition, up to ten children with disabilities receive one-week scholarships to enable them to fully participate in Zoo Camp.    

Because approximately six percent of these zoo campers have special needs, the Let’s All Play program trains zoo staff members inclusion techniques and also hires a specific counselor to work with children with disabilities, including campers with more profound disabilities.

According to program evaluations in partnership with the Center for Social Development and Education (CSDE) of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, the outcomes of theLet’s All Play program are as follows:

Counselor observations indicated for children with disabilities:

·         84% showed moderate to high improvement in social skills

·         82% showed moderate to high improvement in motor skills

·         85% showed moderate to high improvement in self-esteem

P Parent surveys from our Let’s All Play partners:

·         89% of children with disabilities participated in most of all program activities

·         83% of children with disabilities made a few to a lot of friends

·         86% of programs asked parents for input regarding their child’s needs

2014 partner questionnaire:

·         96% made adaptations to their schedule, programming and/or equipment

·         78% served more children with disabilities than in previous years

·         70% were able to serve all children who applied

About the Chicago Zoological Society

The Chicago Zoological Society inspires conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature. The Society is a private nonprofit organization that operates Brookfield Zoo on land owned by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. The Society is known throughout the world for Brookfield Zoo's innovative, naturalistic, multispecies exhibits and for its international role in animal population management and wildlife conservation. For further information, visit

About the National Inclusion Project

The National Inclusion Project, cofounded in 2003 by entertainer Clay Aiken, serves to bridge the gap between young people with disabilities and the world around them.  Through its efforts to establish social inclusion in after-school programs, summer camps, and community-based activities, children of all abilities learn, play, and laugh together. Over the last 12 years, the project has provided training, curriculum, and support to YMCAs, JCCs, Boys & Girls Clubs, 4H, CampFire USA, Kids Museums, zoos, and other community organizations looking to become inclusive or enhance their inclusive programs. For more information on the National Inclusion Project and to help ensure no child sits on the sidelines, visit

Related Books

The illustrated children’s book ASD Zoo of Kalamazoo by Josie Santomauro is a perfect read for young children with and without disabilities. The book shows how various zoo animals, many exhibiting traits similar to the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder, capitalize on their strengths as they manage to get along and live together. As such, the book helps children recognize their own characteristics and learn how to adapt for greater success in the social realm. Learn more.

Push to Open: A Teacher’s QuickGuide to Universal Design for Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum in the General Education Classroom by Lisa Combs is another AAPC title that deals with inclusion strategies. This practical and simple guide will help educators remove common barriers to success for students with autism spectrum and related disorders, while also benefiting many other students in the general education classroom. Learn more.


Gehron, L. (2015, February 25). CZS partners with national inclusion project for "let's all play" Retrieved from

Research and outcomes - National Inclusion Project. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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83% of children with disabilities made a few to a lot of friends with the inclusion project
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