Facility Profile - September 2006
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Zoo: A Spot for Tots

Kronkosky Tiny Tot Nature Spot At The San Antonio Zoo And Aquarium
San Antonio, Texas

By Kyle Ryan

ypically, a zoo is one of a city's most popular destinations for families with young children. But as anyone who's taken a little kid to a zoo knows, the facilities can be surprisingly ill-designed for their youngest clientele—especially for kids under the age of 5 who often can't see exhibits. It's a little short-sighted, considering how much zoos rely on families.

"The biggest client for a zoo is 5- to 12-year-olds," says Chris Overdorf, principal for Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, Ltd. in Seattle that specializes in zoos. "Typically, the break up of a family, if they're bringing their 5-year-old or their 8-year-old, the majority is bringing a younger one. So the view lines and the developmental issues of a 0 to 5 typically are not a design subject that a lot of designers breach, and it is something that is very, very unique, and it's needed if a zoo really wants to attract an entire family."

That's exactly who the San Antonio Zoo and Aquarium attracts, though like most zoos, it didn't really address its youngest customers. When the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, a local child-advocacy group, began analyzing early-childhood development, it realized that the most popular family destination in San Antonio was the zoo. So in 1999, the foundation approached the zoo about creating a place for infants to 5-year-old children.

Five years later, the Kronkosky Tiny Tot Nature Spot (KTTNS) opened. A highly interactive area with 19 play areas on two acres of zoo property, it allows kids to learn through playing, which is the best way to reach such a young audience.

At the beginning of the planning phase, the zoo and the Kronkosky foundation commissioned a "blue-ribbon committee" of experts in early-childhood development, child safety, "work as play" and others to brainstorm for the new facility. The first of a few grants from Kronkosky paid for the commission.

"Could conservation and this very young age group, did they go together?" says Stacy McReynolds, education manager for the San Antonio Zoo. "That was the first question they asked, and that was the first grant we received—and it was a resounding 'yes.'"

The commission learned how quickly children's brains develop from birth to age 5, particularly during their first year of life. Right after they're born, kids can't really see in color, and they can't focus on images as little as 10 inches away.

"I remember reading some author who called that [time] from once they're born until they're about three months the 'missing fourth trimester,'" Overdorf says, laughing. "In San Antonio, we tried to respond to that design issue by using a lot of highly monochromatic and high-contrast materials, just to accentuate or respond to that developmental need."

After the blue-ribbon committee finished its work, the zoo brought in firms who specialized in children's play spaces (Moore Iacofano Goltsman, Inc.) and zoo design (Jones and Jones).

"Somehow, designing those enclosures for all the different critters takes quite a bit of expertise," McReynolds says, laughing.

Before planning began, zoo staff members just had a general idea what the new facility should feature.

"We wanted to have an area that would get people connected with nature, that would inspire people to care about nature and the specifics of how to do that," McReynolds says. To complement the ideas generated by the blue-ribbon commission, zoo staff visited other facilities to get ideas—but no other facility around the country could match what San Antonio eventually constructed.