Blank Park Zoo | A Sensory-Friendly Place in Des Moines
Blank Park Zoo is a bustling place, with a steady stream of different sights, sounds, and smells. To ensure all feel welcome and comfortable visiting this buzzing destination, the Zoo recently revamped and expanded their sensory backpack program, with the help of KultureCity and a team from the 2018 Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute Community Leadership Program. These backpacks are specifically designed for children and adults on the autism spectrum or with Sensory Processing Disorders (SPDs). The Zoo has 20 sensory bags, each containing noise-canceling headphones, squishy balls, fidget toys and I feel/I need cards. A limited number of weighted lap pads are also available upon request. Both the sensory bags and weighted lap pads can be checked out at the Admissions area within the Zoo. There is no charge, but the Zoo requires you provide an ID and leave it with the admissions staff until the bag is returned.
Dave and Anna Jordal, along with their two children, recently came to Blank Park Zoo. Their 9-year-old son, Graham, utilized a sensory backpack during his visit and found the headphones and fidget toys to be especially helpful.
“Sometimes families that have children with sensory issues don’t go to places where there’s going to be a lot of noise and possible over-stimulation,” said Anna. “I think it’s nice to offer things so that they feel comfortable coming.”
In addition, Sensory Guide signage has been placed around the Zoo indicating Loud Zones, where headphones are highly recommended, and Quiet Zones, where guests can go if they need to take a break from a noisier area. These zones are also marked on the Zoo maps.
“As a parent, it’s nice to have places that you can go where you know it’s going to be quiet,” said Anna. “Especially when things get a little chaotic.”
Blank Park Zoo is committed to making every aspect of your experience fun, safe, and accessible, and it is their belief that every individual should have the highest quality experience when visiting.
“We are the only KultureCity certified attraction in Iowa and we are excited to offer this program to enhance our inclusion efforts for all guests,” said Anne Shimerdla, President and Chief Operating Officer of Blank Park Zoo.
Since 2011, the Zoo has collaborated with the Iowa Department for the Blind and Iowa Educational Services for the Blind & Visually Impaired to make several improvements to the visitor experience to help those with sight impairments explore the Zoo through touch. This includes imprints on exhibit signs depicting the size and shapes of animals as well as sound experiences, such as a playing didgeridoo and doorbell in the David Kruidenier Australia Adventure. Other examples are improvements to the exhibit sight lines and access to signs that represent the full size of the animals. The Zoo also has a braille map, which was created by the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and a couple of bags containing tactile objects that are labeled in braille, such as plastic animals, fur, feathers, skulls, and eggs. In addition, these bags have a list of exhibit features around the Zoo for visually impaired individuals to experience. Both the bags and braille map can be checked out at the Admissions area and like the sensory backpacks, require an ID.
Up next for the Zoo is a sensory garden that will be accessible for wheelchairs near the current butterfly garden. The garden will be an exploratory area for guests to enjoy and will allow them to relax and reflect on their visit. Once the project is fully funded, construction will begin and space will include seating; soothing smells; life-sized chimes; and beautiful, accessible landscape.
The Zoo is also adding new bathrooms that will include a lactation room and adult changing station.
To read a social narrative to prepare you or your loved ones for a trip to the Zoo, visit https://www.blankparkzoo.com/plan-your-visit/accessibility/. Blank Park Zoo hopes all guests will benefit, as it becomes more accessible and inclusive, allowing each person to fully connect with nature and all that it has to offer.