Brevard Zoo's sensory programs and nature space connect allow "exceptionable" kids to enjoy the zoo at their own pace.

Five-year-old Olivia Bellerose loves the Brevard Zoo.

She is especially fond of the Exceptional Nature Space, the zoo’s natural play area designed to meet the unique needs of children with varying “exceptionablilities.”

Dual-diagnosed with down-syndrome and autism, Olivia has been a regular at the 4,700-square-foot, behind the scenes habitat before it officially opened back in 2017, when she was just an infant.

Within the space, kids are free to explore, engage and socialize with other like children and experience “learning by doing.”

The enclosed area boasts a flexible design that allows easy re-setting and programming to best serve children depending on their individual challenges.

“For Olivia, the play space provides an unencumbered way she can explore nature,” said her mother, Dawn Bellerose.

“We find that due to mobility or sensory-processing challenges, many children with special needs don’t spend as much time outdoors as their peers,” said Lindsay Mathisen, Brevard Zoo’s inclusion coordinator.

“The ENS is both safe and stimulating for these children. It is also a ‘living laboratory’ in that we can observe and collect feedback from both the kids and their parents who interact here.”

The Brevard Zoo now offers three programs for the space, targeting different levels of developmental needs.

The first, Muddy Buddies, is a sensory immersion interactive experience using mud. The second, Recipe for a Habitat, involves having children collect items on a scavenger hunt to create a habitat for lizards. The third, Team Building, is a program involving kids working together to solve problems and build a boat to float down the river.

Last year, the Brevard Zoo became the first zoo in Florida to receive a sensory-inclusive certification from Kulture City, a non-profit based in Alabama.

The organization’s mission is to inspire and create community awareness and inclusion of individuals with unique abilities.

Because of Kulture City’s donation of sensory bags – containing noise cancelling headphones, weighted lap pads and fidget toys – the zoo is now equipped with various options to help those with sensory challenges adapt to the surroundings and cope with crowds and noise from both people and the animals.

“This sensory initiative allows individuals with these processing needs the ability to see and experience the zoo without being overwhelmed by their surroundings,” Mathisen said.

“We offer three special sensory nights yearly, including Sensory Boo at the Zoo and Santa Visits ENS, where limited attendance is required in order to provide special needs individuals and their families time to explore the zoo at their own pace,” Mathisen continued. “In addition, the staff has identified areas designated to serve as ‘quiet areas,’ meaning they are less crowded and typically shaded for special needs guests.”

Within the confines of the new Rainforest Revealed loop, an elevator and viewing walkway was added to allow wheelchair accessibility to those who wish to view the animals from an aerial view.

“We believe everyone has the right to experience the zoo, regardless of his or her mental or physical disabilities,” said Mathisen.

“This is not something special, but something we promote because it must be done. If I can be there to make someone’s day better, I am thankful for the opportunity.”

The Brevard Zoo offers group rates for nature play in the Exceptional Nature Space. A family nature club event is free twice monthly. For more information on any of the sensory programs or ENS visit: , call
321-254-9453 or contact Lindsay Mathisen @

2020 Special ENS Days: February 8, March 14, April 11 and May 9