Bringing the Cincinnati Zoo to the Classroom

The Henderson Fund was established with the goal of introducing special needs students at Cincinnati Public Schools to animals from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

Students from Cheviot Elementary School interacting with an animal from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

Interacting with animals is one of life’s biggest joys, regardless of age. But it is especially important during childhood, when kids tend to form lasting images about their environments.

For kids, taking regular trips to the zoo is a great way to see and learn all about animals. But what about kids who have disabilities that make traveling or being in foreign environments too difficult to handle? Since 2008, the Henderson Fund seeks to address this very problem. Created by Julie Henderson, a retired Cincinnati Public Schools teacher, the fund was established with the goal of introducing special needs children to animals in their own classrooms.

Animals for All

It all started when Julie had her retirement party back in 2008. Instead of receiving gifts from her friends, Julie asked that they donate money to be used to fund zoo visits to disability classrooms in the district. Ten years later, the program is still going strong under Julie’s supervision and in partnership with Activities Beyond the Classroom, Cincinnati’s foremost extracurricular organization.

These days, no less than 34 classrooms get to enjoy visits from local zookeepers, who bring all sorts of animals along with them, including hedgehogs, chickens and even hissing cockroaches. Every creature that the children come into contact with is docile and harmless, so there’s no need to fret about safety. Aside from seeing the animals up close, children also get to learn all about their characteristics and habitats. As Julie puts it, “I ask them to choose books and choose animals that align with curriculum.” Animals that are deemed too frightening are kept out of the program, and parents are also invited to take part in the fun themselves.

The Impact of the Henderson Fund

In its ten years of existence, the Henderson Fund has fostered a strong connection between CPS and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, an institution that has time and time again proven its value as an educational partner. By witnessing and interacting with creatures they’d otherwise have little chance of seeing, special needs children get to expand their horizons and discover what’s out there in a completely risk-free environment.

Teachers are also happy to see their children enjoying themselves. “These visits are so special and important to my children. My children have a variety of special needs so we are unable to travel for the rich experiences that field trips provide young children! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see the children enjoy these visits,” says Kim Philips, a Preschool Disabilities Intervention Specialist at Cheviot Elementary School.

Helping special needs children enjoy the company of animals may be a small step in the right direction, but it’s one that has already made a noticeable difference in the lives of many CPS children and will hopefully continue to do so in the years to come.