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Kristen Gunderson holds out a muddy rhino

Kristen, our new Inclusion Coordinator, is your source for all sorts of fun nature play!

Our Exceptional Nature Space is already a pretty natural area but sprinkled through the space recently were a number of mud-related activities: making fizzy mud, washing (plastic) Zoo animals, “baking” mud snacks, and more.

Muddy plastic animals lie in a bin.After meeting Maleficent the Florida box turtle, the group of children took over the space. Mud pancakes were placed in the oven, an elephant received a much-needed bath, and mud fizzed away (thanks to a mix of baking soda in the dirt and vinegar in spray bottles!).

This dirty good time was thanks to Brevard Zoo’s new inclusion coordinator, Kristen Gunderson. This program, Muddy Buddies, is just one of the programs she offers for children.

“It taps into all kinds of systems,” Kristen said of the program. “It allows them to experience different smells, sights, and textures. It helps them in a safe way explore nature.

As the inclusion coordinator, Kristen’s job is to make sure all our Zoo’s educational programs and classes are inclusive and accessible to all their participants. This includes providing guidance, support and training for Zoo staff who may work with people with exceptional needs.

As the inclusion coordinator, Kristen will develop programs especially for children with exceptionalities. She’s also the coordinator for the Family Nature Club, a special free inclusive monthly meetup for families at local outdoor experiences.

Inclusion coordinator Kristen plays with a mother and daughter.Kristen has been an Occupational Therapist for 27 years, working primarily with children with exceptionalities in a school setting. As an Occupational Therapist, Kristen was trained to work with people of all ages who may have physical, cognitive or sensory impairments.

“We help people improve their independence and function in all aspects of their life,” said Kristen, describing occupational therapy. “We use everyday activities and other exercise therapies to help people maximize their performance and function.”

While working in a school setting, Kristen helped students understand their lessons by developing their fine motor and cognitive skills and improving their sensory processing. She worked closely with teachers to adapt classroom activities or provide resources to ensure students were included or had access to the same activities as their peers.

This experience will translate well to the needs of Zoo visitors with exceptionalities, Kristen said. Her approach will stay relatively the same.

A family explores a container of dirt and plastic animals“The only difference is as an Occupational Therapist, we were skill-based in terms of improving a person’s skill and now I am more focused on the experience and participation in our programming,” Kristen said. “I want to ensure that all participants have access and feel included in the experiences in our educational programs on and off site and adapt those experiences as needed.”

In her first few months at the Zoo, Kristen has been supporting and providing guidance for staff and campers in our summer camps. She provided training for our staff on inclusion prior to the start of camp, and the staff have done an incredible job using the strategies they learned during the training.

Kristen’s work won’t just be felt in our educational programs. She will be helping make events, such as Boo at the Zoo, inclusive for people with exceptionalities as well.

She’ll also be working with staff across our different departments to make the Zoo more accessible and inclusive to our guests. This includes updating our Exceptional Nature Space, a behind-the-scenes play area that lets users enjoy nature in a safe place. Kristen will also work with an occupational therapy doctoral student in making our kayaking experiences more accessible.

“We want everybody to come to the Zoo and feel included,” Kristen said.

Brevard Zoo is an independent, not-for-profit organization that receives no recurring government funding for our operating costs. Your generous support enables us to continue to serve our community and continue our vital animal wellness, education and conservation programs.