Don’t make the rookie mistake of just showing up to the zoo with absolutely no plans.
I mean, if you like livin’ life on the edge like that, be my guest. But this enneagram 6, anxious, neurodivergent mama to a neurodivergent child is allll about planning ahead. Consider these 4 main tips for making your zoo trip more successful.
PREPARE YOUR CHILD FOR WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE ZOO
Neurodivergent children can have a hard time processing things that are unexpected, new, and/or out of their routine, which even includes fun surprises and activities like the zoo.
The nervous system likes predictability and familiarity; without that, our nervous system and brains are on high alert to detect danger (aka on the brink of fight or flight mode). Since the entire zoo experience in and of itself is exciting and out of routine, you can help your child out by spending time before your zoo trip familiarizing them with what to expect.
I’m not just talking about what animals they’ll see, but help them prepare for what the sequence of events will be like, what tricky situations may come up, specifically, preparing them for things like:
- What the weather might be like (and how that can affect your trip)
- That some animals are not always available to see
- Lots of toys and snacks around that they can’t have
- Sharing space with other people when looking at an exhibit or in a play area
- Busy crowds/lots of people around
- Sounds and smells that may be triggering for them
You can prepare them just by talking about it, but I would suggest creating a social story and looking at that zoo’s specific photos.
What I love about the San Diego Zoo is that they have partnered with Kulture City, which is an organization that provides sensory bags and tips for sensory kids to visit the zoo. Kulture City created so many great social stories that are available for free on the Kulture City app! (In the App Store and on Google Play)
MAKE A PLAN FOR YOUR DAY AT THE ZOO
Don’t make the mistake of just showing up and “winging it,” especially at the San Diego Zoo. There are so many wonderful exhibits and animals to see, and the place is huge! I highly recommend checking out a map and circling or tracking your path for how you want to pace yourself through the zoo.
They have an app as well, but I’m much more of a paper and pencil kinda gal 🙂
You could print out a map from the San Diego Zoo website and bring it with you, or you could do something as simple as making a written checklist of things you want to see and do while you’re there.
Hot tip: include bathroom breaks, eating breaks, rest/movement breaks in your schedule/check-list so your child knows there will be breaks throughout the day.
SENSORY TOOLS TO BRING TO THE ZOO
Whether you have an ND kid or a neurotypical kid (or one of each), sensory tools can benefit all nervous systems! When you’re dealing with the heat, long stretches of time out in the sun and a lot of waiting, smells, sights and other sensations bombarding you all day, a sensory tool can go a long way in boosting regulation.
At the San Diego Zoo you can head to their guest information booth near the tour bus entrance and request a sensory bag from Kulture City- it came with noise reducing headphones and a couple of fidgets (honestly, I didn’t think Liliana would use the fidgets as much but she never let go of it. It was so helpful in a lot of waiting/decision-making anxiety situations).
Here are some other sensory tools that you might consider bringing to your zoo trip
- Sunglasses or hat– the sunglasses can protect from the brightness of the sun, but a hat can provide calming deep pressure to the head, and also block out extra visual input that may be overstimulating to your child.
- Handheld fidget or toy that they can focus on. There are 2 that come in the Kulture city bag, but here are some of my other favorites (they are affiliate links)
- Noise-reducing headphones (also provided in the Kulture City sensory bag at the San Diego Zoo) The zoo isn’t quite as loud as a major theme park, but it can still come in handy when in some indoor viewing areas when there can be loud echoes, screaming, crying or clapping. It can also be helpful in the restrooms around hand dryers and toilet flushing.
- Something to chew or suck on– chewing and sucking provides regulating proprioceptive input to the jaw, which many kids find calming. Some ideas include:
- Thick smoothie or water bottle with chewable straw
- Dried fruit or jerky
- Frozen fruit
- Stroller/wagon- I can’t stress this enough, there is a LOT of standing and walking around the zoo, with many steep hills. If you have a child who is sensitive to temperature, fatigues easily, or is sensitive to interoception, plan to either take a LOT of breaks, or bring a stroller or wagon for them to have breaks.
For reference, my daughter is 5, almost 6 and she can get through most stores and parks without a stroller or wagon, but in big places like Disneyland or the zoo, it is a non-negotiable.
Here’s why it helps.
When your body fatigues easily, or if you have a nervous system that becomes overwhelmed from heat, or internal body temperature from a lot of movement, you can become dysregulated. This means you have less cognitive brain energy to access social emotional skills like waiting patiently, using kind words, and generally using a regular talking voice that doesn’t sound like a whining cat (you know what I mean).
The zoo has all sorts of fun (sometimes overstimulating) things that can dysregulate kids, but you can help conserve the brain energy needed to deal with all that by making the physical demands less (and a stroller/wagon does this).
- Something to sniff that they like: it goes without saying- there are many different smells at the zoo. Not all of them are great, and not all of them are from just the animals. If you have a smell-sensitive person in your zoo group, you might consider bringing something small and portable that they can easily take out and sniff when there’s a big smell in the air. Some ideas include:
- Fresh lemon wedges (just keep some in a small ziplock bag that your child can smell whenever they need to)
- Lipsmackers chapstick (swipe some on your child’s inner wrist and have them just sniff their wrist when they feel nauseated)
- Fresh coffee beans (put some in a small sauce-size tupperware and bring this around mealtime or when waiting in line for them to sniff, it does wonders!)
- A face mask (this can make some of the smells less intense, though it won’t eliminate it. If you like, you can add a light scent by rubbing a bit of cinnamon or a preferred scent on the outside of the mask. Just make sure the scent itself isn’t overpowering.)
Walking around in the zoo is great sensory input on its own, but if you have a toddler or kid strapped in a stroller, or they need something MORE than just walking, make a plan for some sensory movement breaks.
The San Diego Zoo has several play areas that encourage lots of movement. Liliana particularly liked the Elephant play yard area.
I hope these tips leave you with some inspiration and encouragement to take that trip to the zoo. I know how intimidating it can feel when you have to consider the extra accommodations and special planning to make it enjoyable for your neurodivergent family member, but I promise- it’s totally doable!