Zoos Can Foster Connections with Nature for Early Learners and Encourage Nature Play

March 30th, 2017

Zoos can diversify and expand their visitors’ experiences by having a dedicated play space for young learners, allowing them to do what they do best: learn through play. Dedicated natural play spaces and programs such as nature swaps in zoos increase physical activity, quiet reflection, and types of play children engage in during play, including an increase in science learning behaviors. Natural play spaces modeled on local natural resources can inspire families to use natural resource areas more often and in more playful ways and connect families to a larger sense of place. Dedicated natural play spaces and programs such as nature swaps in zoos may foster connections with nature

Findings from Research & Evaluation

In a standard modern zoo setting, children indirectly access nature by viewing the animals housed at the zoo. This indirect access may help them build knowledge and connections with animals and the natural world, but these experiences are much more potent as learning experiences if augmented with direct, hands-on, and spontaneous experiences that bridge the familiar and unfamiliar. (Kellert, 2005, Wells & Lekies, 2006) In general, people visit zoos infrequently and the average visit is more socially based with a focus on fun and experience, as opposed to a play or environmental education focus. (Falk, et al. 2007). At the zoo, however, guests are immersed in a context-rich, free-choice, family-friendly, informal learning environment that is unique due to the presence of animals within its conservation, entertainment, and educational goals. This environment is well-suited to incorporate nature play as a learning tool for the youngest audiences. (Worch & Haney, 2011)

A few questions arise in research on this topic, such as: are zoos able to effectively connect visitors, such as children, with nature? And, since young children learn best through nature play, how can zoos incorporate it on grounds or encourage everyday nature play through programming? (Price, Vining, & Saunders, 2009, Worch & Haney, 2011) This review focuses specifically on nature play programming at zoos, although research in this area is quite sparse. In a sense, the idea of nature play in zoos is an area that is still developing. Following the extensive body of research showing the vital importance of play to early childhood and a call for “return to play” since the early 2000s (Vadala, Bixler, & James, 2007), some zoos have created distinct spaces for the early learner audience and their developmental needs for discovery and connection with nature. Nature play areas and programs take many forms, a few which are discussed below, including nature play spaces/”play zoos” and nature swaps.

Nature play spaces, or “play zoos”, have been created at a number of zoos including North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, North Carolina; Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, IL; Denver Zoo in Denver, CO; Toledo Zoo in Toledo, OH, and Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, FL. These spaces are quite diverse in design. A few have controlled entries, such as small fees. They have different levels of signage and adults take on different roles- staff, volunteers, and parents act on a spectrum between play partners or facilitators and passive observers. In most of these sites, some type of direct animal contact is provided by staff to build on animal-child connections and spur inquiry. What these areas all have in common is a service that diversifies the typical zoo experience: a designated area for learner-directed, inquiry-based discovery that is specifically designed for a variety of children’s developmental levels (usually targeted for ages 2-12). They are existing or modified outdoor environments and usually contain separate zones with multitudes of loose parts to cultivate varied play types and allow for hands-on, sensory-based engagement with nature. In studies of these natural play areas, researchers so far have reported increased levels of physical activity, increased time spent in quiet reflection, and greater diversity in the types of play children engage in. (Moore, 2014, Oxarart, Monroe, & Plate, 2013) A significant impact to note is an increase of science learning behaviors performed during play in natural play areas at zoos that may lead to fundamental understanding of science concepts and science learning capabilities. (Worch & Haney, 2011)

A couple of these zoo-integrated nature play spaces are modeled on natural areas near to the zoo and serve not only as a play area within the zoo but also encouragement for families to visit and explore the local real-life inspiration. Oxarart, Monroe, and Plate conducted a study at one of these locally modeled play areas, the Paws On Children’s Exhibit at Brevard Zoo (2013) designed around the nearby Indian River Lagoon. “Paws On” and similar play areas often help bridge connections between zoo animals and animals kids can see in their backyards and increase the value of everyday nature play. Play in the zoo version can act as a “guide” for families as they venture into the “wild” version by modeling loose parts play, introducing regional animals, plants, and geology, and supporting parents’ understanding of and comfort with nature play. Post-visit resources such as websites and community partnerships not only reinforce the messages within the play area, but also connect children and families within a larger sense of place. Oxarart and colleagues found that families were significantly inspired to visit the Indian River Lagoon from the time they spent at “Paws On”.  (Oxarart, Monroe, & Plate, 2013)

Somewhere between child-led nature play and an instructor-facilitated class are nature swaps. On their own time, children (often with family) find interesting pieces of nature that they bring in to the zoo, such as the nature swap at Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo. (Price, Vining, & Saunders, 2009) The child tells a story and shares research about the object in order to gain points granted by a facilitator which they can later use to spend on objects other children have brought in to swap. These programs encourage independent outdoor exploration and discovery in the hope that the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of the program lead to a big payoff: that children love the objects they find and trade, love spending time in nature, and want to care for it in the future. Participants and their families felt they (or their child) were rewarded not just by participation itself and gaining points, but also from their increased time playing in nature and looking for swap items. (Price, Vining, & Saunders, 2009)

Directions for Further Research

More research is needed on the long-term impacts of nature play focused programming in zoos and the potential for zoos to use their existing resources to encourage nature play in the zoo as well as in guests’ everyday lives. Little work has been done on the development of long-term pro-environmental, pro-conservation orientations and behaviors in children as a result of zoo and play zoo visitation, but that is also certainly a goal of zoo-integrated nature play spaces.

The research discussed in the above section is a great start, but really understanding the connections between nature play, parent/guardian capacity building for everyday nature play, and the place of zoos in contributing to life-long nature connections and conservation-related behaviors is vital.


Falk, J.H., Reinhard, E.M., Vernon, C.L., Bronnenkant, K., Deans, N.L., & Heimlich, J.E. (2007). Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD. Vernon et al. 2007. Why_Zoos_Aquariums_Matter.pdf

Moore, R. (2014). Nature Play & Learning Places. Creating and managing places where children engage with nature. Raleigh, NC: Natural Learning Initiative and Reston, VA: National Wildlife Federation. Moore 2014 Nature Play & Learning Places

Oxarart, A.L., Monroe, M.C., Plate, R.R. (2013). From Play Areas to Natural Areas: The Role of Zoos in Getting Families Outdoors. Visitor Studies, 16(1), 82-94   Oxarart et al 2013 Role of Zoos in Getting Families Outdoors

Price, E.A., Vining, J., & Saunders, C.D. (2009). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards in a Nonformal Environmental Education Program. Zoo Biology, 28, 261-376.  Price et al 2009 Zoo Biology

Vadala, C., Bixler, R., & James, J. (2007). Childhood play and environmental interests: Panacea or snake oil? Journal of Environmental Education , 39(1), 3-17.  Vadala, Bixler, James- 2007

Wells, N. & Lekies, K. (2006). Nature and the life course: pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth, and Environments, 16(1), 1-24.  Wells & Lekies 2006 Nature and the Life Course

Worch, E.A. & Haney, J.J. (2011). Assessing a Children’s Zoo Designed to Promote Science Learning Behavior through Active Play: How Does It Measure Up? Children, Youth and Environments, 21(2), 383-407.  Worch & Haney Science Learning at Children’s Zoo