Education Report 2020 8-17-2020 | Page 6

A Place for All Dawn Bellerose grew up in an outdoorsy family. Her childhood home in Long Island, New York was something of a miniature farm, replete with a vegetable garden, pet chickens, rabbits and goats. She grew up fishing, swimming and camping before becoming a park ranger at several state and national parks, including Everglades National Park. Dawn’s five-year-old daughter, Olivia, has Down syndrome, which makes it difficult for her to regulate her body temperature outside. “Keeping her in a shaded area during the hotter months is essential,” Dawn said. The Zoo’s inclusion coordinator, Lindsay Mathisen, added that families of children with special needs are often challenged by what to expect from outdoor experiences. Insects, weather and the general unpredictability of nature can trigger difficult-to-manage behaviors and aggravate sensory issues. When the Zoo’s Exceptional Nature Space (ENS) was preparing to open the Down Syndrome Association of Brevard reached out to Dawn to see if her family would be interested in “testing it out” and they obliged. This enclosed natural area, which opened in May 2017, is located behind the scenes and is a safe, fun and stimulating space for children of special needs. It is ideal for children with temperature-regulation challenges like Olivia. Since its debut, over 500 individuals have participated in programs inside the ENS, including monthly meetups, community group sessions and school programs. Children engage in open-ended nature play, socialize with others, learn by doing and experiment in an authentic Florida setting. “Just like me, Olivia loves being outside,” Dawn said. “She enjoys any activity where she can get dirty or play in the water.” Through the ENS, Dawn and Olivia are able to get out into nature regularly, play with paint, bang on drums, discover new species and much more. Now regulars to the ENS, the Bellerose family have participated in several other Zoo offerings like Family Nature Club and sensory-friendly special events. “When Olivia thinks of the Zoo, she doesn’t think about the giraffe or monkeys; she thinks of the Exceptional Nature Space.” 5