Zoo Play

image: Kary Arimoto-Mercer

image: Kary Arimoto-Mercer

“Play is children’s work.
It is an exercise in self-definition; it reveals what we choose to do, not what we have to do.

We not only play because we are. We play the way we are. And the ways we could be.
Play is our free connection to pure possibility.”
Hara Estroff Marano, “The Power of Play”

The psychologist quoted above, Hara Estroff Marano, argues that modern attitudes to parenting mean anxious mums and dads are crowding out the unsupervised play that kids used to enjoy. As a result children don’t get much opportunity to solve their own problems, to practice co-operation and to test their leadership skills.

This is where play comes in – in one of the most naturally interesting, egalitarian and safe places that a family can spend time together … a zoo.

Landscape architects are uniquely qualified to assist zoos in addressing the challenges of providing richly-fulfilling visitor experiences and sustainable infrastructure within a living landscape that is governed by our attention to the well-being of the animals in our care.

If we look closely at the social context & human behaviors at zoos in a historical context, we find that zoos and exhibits originated through visitor’s amazement of the strange and wondrous animals they saw. Once amazement became commonplace, zoos were quick to add amusements to maintain the allure of a visit to the zoo.

In the not so distant past, however, zoos went through a philosophical and design revolution based upon the emerging understanding of animal behavior and landscape ecology in the 1960s and 1970s. Such an approach signified that animals should be seen and understood as part of the habitat in which they evolved, and should incorporate natural and naturalistic elements for the animals to use.  In this scenario, “the wild” began to be re-captured, with the animals meant to be intrinsically fascinating and meaningful within a natural context, living their own lives (does the phrase “take only photographs / leave only footprints” sound familiar?), and amusements were essentially banished in favor of science learning and education.  Emotional connections were supposed to be made based upon the power of observation.

Today, another revolution is occurring.  This philosophical move is based upon behavioral ecology and looking at the types and magnitudes of behavior that arose naturally out of animals’ adaptations to their environment.  In addition, animals in human care have types of behaviors that are necessary to maintain in order for them to remain fit and “happy.” There are, obviously, deep parallels between the zoo animals’ needs and the human condition; the need for choice, exercise, and play.

Asian Tropical Forest, Woodland Park Zoo,  Seattle, WA image: Becca Hanson

Asian Tropical Forest, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA
image: Becca Hanson

How does play in a zoo setting set itself apart from play in other public spaces? 

Research shows that play and “free-range discovery” opportunities are intrinsic to the process of early learning and engagement in children, and that, equally, a deep well of attention is set aside (by young children) for animals – a powerful, but uncategorized interest waiting to be channeled into more cogent feelings and thoughts.[1] Thus zoos, as trusted social institutions, have the opportunity to enable children to play in ways where they are not just building physical and social “mastery”, but also taking on risk, and building a basis for future interactions with the natural world and empathy for the world of wild LIFE.

Equally, by combining nature and play together in one place, we have the ability to build upon the child’s innate biophilia[2] and, hopefully, deter a growing sense of ecophobia [3] and prejudice against nature[4] that accompanies lack of exposure to natural elements. When zoos do it right, play experiences in the zoo deal with the behavioral ecology of what it means to be human, and connects it with what it means to live in and with the natural world that lies outside of our backyards and park play areas.

There are a number of considerations that we use when designing play experiences. These include the following:

Types of Play (based upon behavioral ecology)

Agency:  Providing the ability for the child to make his or her own choices.

Adventure Play:  Providing a multi-use, challenging physical environment.

Full-body Play: Running, jumping, expending energy.

Parallel Play:  Opportunities alongside an exhibit where children can perform actions and activities that are similar to the animals.

Role Playing:  Taking on attributes of others – animals or human.

Imaginative Play: Pretending you are someplace else.

Observational Play:  Making sure that there is plenty of space to observe others before you are ready to commit yourself.

Reflective Play:  Ensuring quiet places for respite from the chaos of play.

Hunting & Gathering:  Enabling things up to be picked up, categorized and talked about.

Levels of Play (based upon standards of safety and levels of engagement)

Hazard:   the actual source of danger

Risk:   a situation involving exposure to danger

Safe Danger:   the perception, but not the actuality

Challenge:   a situation that tests a person’s abilities

Mastery:   the development of a skill set / a sense of accomplishment

Age-Appropriate Experiences (based upon Piaget and many others)

0 – 4 Years

  • Tries to make sense of the world through their senses.
  • Highly dependent upon parent / caregiver.
  • Requires dependable, safe areas within which to move.

4 – 8 Years

  • Goes from “me” to “we” – is better able to deal with group experiences & sharing.
  • Engages in parallel play with other individuals & species.
  • Possesses enhanced spatial awareness: capable of discrimination of self & separation from parents.
  • Possesses enhanced dexterity: capable of creating, building, and adventuring.
  • Highly capable of prolonged imaginative play.

9+ Years

  • Beginning to look for “real life” solutions & experiences.

Sources of Inspiration for Crafting Unique Play Experiences

Natural Habitats:  The variety of site-specific places & their natural attributes

Animal Species:  “homes”, locomotion, size, variety, role playing

Human Use:  Role playing, care-giving, value-sharing, rest and relaxation for all

Zoos provide a complex canvas upon which a child’s imagination can run free.  The designer’s charge is to balance the necessity for safety and parental feelings of ease with thoroughly engaging a child on an emotional as well as physical level.  By layering in exposure to the natural world that they and animals inhabit, we aim to build a connection to those animals and their wide spectrum of capabilities that are like our own in so many ways.

by Chris Cain, Studio Hanson|Roberts


[1] Jan Mooallem, “A Child’s Wild Kingdom”, The NY Times, 4 May 2013.

[2] E.O Wilson,”Biophila”, 1984.

[3] Sobel, “Ecophobia”, 1996.

[4] Cohen, “prejudice Against Nature”, 1984.

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