Experiential Play in Botanical Gardens and Zoos

Coyle & Caron has designed plant and animal habitats at botanical and zoological gardens for over twenty-five years and we’ve recently started creating habitats and enrichment areas for young anthropoids on their ‘side of the garden’.  As part of a growing trend in outdoor, experiential play, many zoos and botanical gardens are embracing outdoor play areas as a means to create new visitor experiences and an opportunity to deepen their mission by connecting with young visitors in a meaningful way.  

We enjoy the challenge of creating places that engage the mind and body, laying the groundwork to make connections to environmental concepts and values. A well-designed play area should be fun, engage all of the senses and stimulate imaginative play.  It also has the potential to engage learning on multiple levels including compassion for the natural world and the plants and animals that live there.

For zoos in particular, inspiring stewardship through empathy is a major focus. The 2018 American Zoological Association (AZA) accreditation manual explains the AZA’s larger goals as “exemplary animal care and welfare, and inspiring guest engagement through effective education and conservation. AZA accreditation standards and requirements represent an unrelenting resolve to create a positive and lasting impact on guests, and to conserve our world’s wild animals and wild places.” One of the best tools a zoo, aquarium or botanical garden has for accomplishing stewardship goals for its youngest guests is play-based learning.

In the last decade, many cultural institutions have incorporated research into how children learn best through play and by doing activities.  It is a well-accepted principal that young children learn best through play. Even older children, like most adults, learn best by doing an activity. Additionally, children who are not doing well in classroom environments absolutely shine when they can engage in physical activity outdoors. Many experiences visitors have at zoo and botanical gardens are ‘look-at,’ passive experiences. If we think about creating more hands-on and physically engaging activities throughout our facilities, there is unlimited potential to tell our stories and make lasting impressions.

When we designed Hammock Hollow at Bok Tower Gardens with Nelson Byrd Woltz, our goal was to create play areas that would introduce children of all visitors to Florida’s ecologies. Children are fascinated by natural environments. Taking advantage of the natural site, the garden was based on three ecologies: hammock, wetland and sandhill.  A ‘limestone ledge’ with splash features gives kids the opportunity to climb and connect with Florida’s bedrock and spring features; other areas prompt them to create art or music under the shade of an old oak tree, lie in a hammock and look up at the canopy or crawl through a tunnel in the sandy soil like a gopher tortoise. Overall, play experiences like these teach children the value of beauty of the natural world and allows them to feel connected to it at an early age. The project won the 2018 Award of Honor from the Florida and Virginia Chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Given the chance to design, kids have unlimited creativity and imagination, their designs often feature lots of hiding and climbing places. (Anyone who has ever watched a child spend longer playing inside a cardboard box than with the gift inside it knows how much children adore little caves and nooks.) Photos below include Nature’s Neighborhoods, where we worked with Main Street Design to create nature-inspired play areas that encouraged kids to experience them like the animals they saw around them at the Franklin Park Zoo. Kids can burrow like prairie dogs to seek shelter in the winter; climb bamboo to survey the forest like a Red Panda would; and run through a grass maze like their new Muntjac friends.