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.

Anatomy of tot-friendliness

KTTNS has several different zones including the Discovery House, My Backyard, Coati/Sloth Hang and Dig, Underwater Adventure, Pier and Pond, Riverbank, and the Campground.

Overdorf says his firm designed the 4,000-square-foot Discovery House to actually be four buildings housing several different exhibits: Explore Underground where kids see the subterranean world of prairie dogs and worms by crawling through the exhibit; Explore Your Pond Room with a kids' aquarium and underwater view of a turtle-filled outdoor pond; and Explore Your Zoo where kids can dress up as zoo keepers, directors and vets and play with props.

In addition to a garden for planting, the My Backyard area has holding pens for touchable animals like rabbits, goats, guinea pigs and chickens, with numerous hand-sanitizing stations to protect the animals from kids' germs and vice-versa. In the Coati/Sloth Hang and Dig area, kids can climb and hang like sloths and monkeys or crawl through a man-made log and mimic the coati, a raccoon-type animal indigenous to South America. In the Underwater Adventure section, visitors can get "face-to-fin" with giant fish and peer at silver dollars schooling back and forth.

At the Pier and Pond area, kids can play in a boat and pretend-fish (using rods with magnets to catch plastic fish), sway on the dock and feed fish, and learn about pond life. In the nearby Riverbank area, kids can play in wading water (2 to 10 inches deep) on a sandy beach, climb on giant tortoise shells and dig for pretend tortoise eggs. Considering summertime temperatures in San Antonio routinely reach 100 degrees or more, the water attractions are particularly popular.

The last part is a large grassy field called the Campground area, where designers originally intended to have rolling hills, moguls, trails and an interactive water feature. Budgetary constraints prevented its construction, but McReynolds says she prefers it that way.

"That enables us to do camp outs for families with toddlers and preschoolers, and that enables us to be able to set up tents all over the yard and do special programming," she says. "I actually think that it's much better the way that it is now, but it's hard to know that whenever you're in the design process. You see a lot in hindsight."

The spoils of success

Since it opened in October 2004, KTTNS has been an overwhelming success; Overdorf credits it for a surge in family memberships at the zoo. It's a testament to its comprehensive planning that KTTNS required virtually no adjustments (besides a few staff changes) once it opened.

"We didn't have to rush through any part of the design phase," McReynolds says. "I think that's really important—and then of course to consider your audience and your mission."

Play leaders get reminded of that mission every day.

"There's a sign as the play leaders walk out the door that says, 'Is what you're doing today inspiring people to create a better future for wildlife?'" McReynolds says. "Because, especially with this age group, it's easy to get off track."

The revolving team of play leaders helps vary the experience for kids and parents, making each visit to KTTNS a little different from the last.

"That's my favorite part," McReynolds says. "With kids, you have to be very flexible, and when you work with animals, you have to be very flexible, and when you work with both of them together, flexibility is definitely the key."


San Antonio Zoo and Aquarium:

Kronkosky Charitable Foundation:

Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, Ltd.:

Moore Iacofano Goltsman, Inc.:

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