Cardboard Box Theory

January 6, 2017 • Scott Ramser, AIA

Early in my zoo design career, I visited a fairly large zoo in a major mid-west metropolitan area with my wife and small children as part of our family vacation. Before we had seen half the zoo, my kids were tired, bored and cranky. All the while, I was bound and determined to see everything at the zoo that day. This trip became known in our family lore as “the death march to see animals”.

What went so terribly wrong? While there were some good animal viewing experiences, there was little else going on to maintain the interest of 4-10 year olds (a core age demographic of zoo guests). My experience as a father tells me a series of exclusively passive viewing experiences is a recipe for disaster. Opportunities for mental and physical stimulation are needed to keep small children engaged and interested in any experience, including zoos.

Many zoos have recently built large nature themed playgrounds, spray-grounds and children’s zoos with activities aimed at this age group.  Some represent investments of several million-dollar expansive and magnificent play centers which wow the guests. These have become popular destinations within the zoo and can be a welcome change in the middle of the day.

While I fully appreciate a fantastic and uniquely designed playground and the definite benefits of this approach, a single focused location for play in the zoo may not always be the best solution. It may not stand on its own to satisfy the need of youngsters to sporadically wind up and burn off excess energy. Additionally, many zoos do not have the resources to commit to a multi-acre and/or multi-million dollar development. Bigger is not always better and indeed, sometimes we are prone to overthinking it.

Consider the common Christmas Day quandary. A month earlier, parents ravaged stores in the wee early morning hours on Black Friday in a relentless quest to acquire the hard-to-find newest and flashiest high tech toys on the market. Then, as the initial thrill of tearing open packages subsides on Christmas morning, the kids can be found spending the rest of the day playing with the boxes. I call it the “cardboard box theory”. Why does this happen? Kids thrive on self-directed play that is spontaneous and self-organized. It doesn’t require extravagant toys or extensive equipment. The box leaves more to the imagination and encourages creativity. There is a good reason that the cardboard box was a 2005 inductee into the National Toy Hall of Fame. Much of the time, simple is better.

This occurs with some of the zoo residents, as well.  Many orangutans can be found in superb habitats with climbing structures, sway poles, ropes and nets that encourage their natural behavior. At the same time, a common favorite of the species for play and manipulation is the cardboard box.

The human primates can also be appealed to in this way. Creating unassuming play elements intermittently throughout an entire zoo experience can help kids remain continuously engaged and in less of a hurry to move on.  Self-directed moments of imaginative mental and physical activity can be stirred by happening upon unexpected simple or whimsical features along the way.

A concrete pipe to crawl through becomes a bear den. A life-size tiger sculpture provides an imaginary quest through the jungle. A series of stumps become lily pads, offering a frog passage across the pond. A slide through the otter pool is a surreal channel through an aquatic underworld. A tree-top hide-away in the aviary makes the dream of flight seem attainable. These mini-play-nodes may not only make a visit to the zoo more enjoyable for kids and parents alike, but also simultaneously foster connections with animals and the nature world.

Many of these examples require a minimal investment and have modest space requirements, but collectively offer a big pay-off in your guests’ experience. Families stay longer, have more potential contact time for conservation messaging and leave happier. Don’t overlook simple solutions to increase guest stay time and overall satisfaction.  Isn’t simpler what we all really need?

National Toy Hall of Fame – Cardboard Box

The Importance of Self-Directed Play

The Value of Spontaneous Play – Child’s Play Magazine