How to Change Kids From Spectators Into Conservationists

April 25, 2021 • Drew Jordan, RLA


We all want our children to grow up with rich, rewarding experiences. We want them to get their hands dirty and play in the rain. We want them to chase butterflies and listen to bird song. We want to think they, in turn, will pass it on to generations after them.

The sad reality is, our fast-paced society of urbanization and unprecedented technology use has distanced children from nature. Kids are addicted to electronic devices. They desperately need the physical and emotional benefits nature offers. It is more important than ever to nurture them into balanced, conservation-minded adults.


Kids need opportunities to interact with nature


Zoos provide a unique opportunity to nurture a global conservation ethic in children that will leave this planet a better place for future generations. My goal as a zoological designer is to create unique, fun, and inspiring spaces in which children of all abilities will be able to connect with nature. Kids will be the ones shaping the future of our planet.


How can zoos do this critical work?

Step 1: Setting Goals and Objectives. Developing goals and objectives is a cornerstone for any successful design and an important first step of the process. Outlining objectives helps the zoo design team focus on their end goals.

These goals must include opportunities for kids to be kids, wiggle, climb and interact with their environment. Nothing kills the joy in a zoo excursion faster than a bored and fussy child.

But more than just installing playground equipment, we look for ways to help children develop empathy for animals, too. Our goal is to have visitors pause, interact and connect with animals.


Step 2: Big Idea Creation. One of the most important (and most fun!) parts of zoo design is brainstorming. Our intent is to spark our collective imagination on what this space could be, and generate several options that can become “Big Ideas” to build on and test drive.

We do this as a collaborative design workshop. Our team compiles a combination of inspiration imagery, narratives, and sketches. Then we use our expertise to draw out and explore ideas. The goal here is to leave no stone unturned and inspire each other to reach new creative heights. These become the basis for creative solutions that are unique and relevant to that project.


Here are some ideas for engaging kids: 



Particularly when designing to engage young zoo visitors, we take into consideration the types of educational and play experiences we would like to use to support our “Big Ideas”.


Step 3: Bring it to life

Much like a living thing, our vision must be nurtured and develop. After exploring all the ideas, weighing advantages and disadvantages, the design team creates a plan. We collaborate with the owners to gently mold our vision to fit real world conditions and the budget. We develop architectural drawings with detailed specifications, perform code reviews, and facilitate approvals as we move into construction. Eventually, our vision becomes reality.

Now the test. Will children really care more about the animals after visiting the zoo?


Empathy IRL (In Real Life)

Our firm worked with Cameron Park Zoo to create an exhibit that celebrates their native Texas wildlife. This large exhibit was called the Brazos River Country for the seven distinct biomes along the river. (It’s pretty cool, check it out here).

We built a 40,000-gallon salt water tank to represent the Gulf reef, an aviary for shore birds, and cool exhibits for alligators, cougars and bears. Each area was well-crafted with native plantings, theme work, just the right amount of shade and then filled it with more than 600 animals.

We also created several features designed just for kids to enjoy. I was eager to take my kids to see how they would react.

About halfway through, we came to the river otter exhibit. My wife and I rested in rocking chairs while our kids ran around in circles, going down the slide again and again.

The slide was unique: it was a clear acrylic tube that went underwater through the otter exhibit.

While our kids played, the otters swam circles around the tube. Clearly the otters were just as entertained by the kids as the kids were by the otters. My kids felt connected to the otters that day. It made a big impact.

I could see firsthand the results of including play activities for children.

  • The slide provided a safe way to interact with wild animals
  • Our family stayed longer
  • Parallel play increased our kids’ empathy for the otters

Zoos provide an important opportunity to see wild animals. Those animals need our help to survive. Our goal as zoo designers is to connect people with wild animals so they want to save them.

If you’d like to know how WDM could work with you to incorporate elements of interactivity and increase guest engagement, please give us a call.