Sunday, January 30, 2011

Children burning off pent up energy: Where to play in aquariums

I want to show you some play areas that I came along recently that allow children to let off some steam. The photos and video clips are from aquariums, malls and airports - what they have in common is that they are indoors and that they encourage kids to be active.
Children playing at a lantern fish sculpture at Ripley's Aquarium Myrtle Beach in South Carolina
Imagine you are a kid and you have been buckled up for an hour's drive to see fish but all you can do is look, when what you really want to do is jump, touch, participate...
Or maybe this energy is due to inclement weather which kept you indoors during the week's heat spell or rainy days. Finally your parents had enough and chaperoned you into an aquarium...
Or you have just toured some of the aquarium, watching fish of all sizes and shapes, listening to videos, and touching screens, and you feel an overload of excitement and are ready to let some of it out...
How do you let go of this energy in an aquarium?
The first example is from the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium in Japan.
Click on the photos to enlarge.
A boy is jumping (he's a blur ) from a cushioned box onto the cushioned floor among some plush animals.

In the photo above the boy is jumping in the other direction. Again, he's a blur and partially hidden by the pink box. You can spot his dad to the far right in a trench coat sitting on one of the cushioned boxes.

And in the final shot the boy is posing for me kneeling on the raised bench. In the foreground is a fish bowl (click on photos to enlarge).

This cushioned play area measures about 20 square meters  (215 sq. feet). There are about five or six small fish tanks interspersed. Tanks differ in shape: rectangle, bowl, cylinder.

Here is a fast pan through the area giving you a quick overview

The pan is so fast that I clipped a couple photos from it below.

Notice the stuffed turtle and stuffed fish (or whale) the kids are bouncing and pouncing on?

And while the kids are active and burning off energy in the "rubber cell" their parents enjoy a tranquil moment to look closely at fish:

If kids are having a great time, the parents love it! They can rest on the cushioned boxes and connect with your treasures. This is the time to bring your message across! Now your husbandry, education or conservation people can "sponsor" this place with their message.

In this play area visitors can observe discus fish (among other species) and find out that discus parents raise their young carefully, and "feed them with a kind of milk secreted from their bodies".
Really? Just like a mammal? Makes you think, doesn't it? Something to talk about. Fitting for an area were visitors bring their carefully-raised young...

For me the bottom line of this area is: First fun, then fish, then the message. 

The next example is a small play area at the Tulsa Airport (Oklahoma, USA).
I've come by this play area several times over the last year and there were always kids playing. Unfortunately, the day I had time to take photos there were no kids around.
Two things I thought were interesting. First, there was not much to this area: just a rubber floor, a crawl-through box, a couple climb-on sculptures and a few games. But kids enjoyed it all the same.
The second interesting thing is that there is no play area at the Oklahoma Aquarium itself, for which this piece is making propaganda. Burning-off-energy areas for kids would be a great addition to this otherwise outstanding aquarium, but I believe they are working on this as I am writing.

This shot is from the other side. I think the entire area is less than 15 square meters (160 sq.ft), and would fit easily next to many indoor exhibits - in aquariums and zoos alike.

The next example is from a mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The area is neither pretty nor involved: cushioned wall, rubberized floor and a slide/climbing sculpture that seems very accident proof - a  synonymous expression for boring - and yet all kids I observed had great fun with it. 
The kids didn't come here to see anything interesting or to learn something new. All they wanted to do was run and jump. I observed the girls in the photo above running down the ramp (the kids didn't use it as a slide) and crashing into the cushioned railing and then letting themselves fall onto the floor - that went on and on. Later I saw two boys doing the same thing. I caught it on the video below:

This game seemed to be as much fun as it was pointless. I saw them doing it over and over.
It also brought back to mind something my sister-in-law said. My two nephews are bundles of energy
and she goes to places where they can let that energy out. She avoids places where they have to sit tight. She doesn't enjoy telling them off, and she is most happy when the kids are having fun.
This play area caters to the needs of the young just like a bench caters to the needs of the elderly or weary. While benches are common in most aquarium galleries, play areas are usually few and far and often just in one area, instead of being interspersed throughout the aquarium.

A good example for combining fish with the children's need to burn off energy is the crawl through tunnel in the Natural Encounters building at the Houston Zoo in Texas.

Here children can crawl through an acrylic tube in a piranha tank. Parents can observe them from the main viewing window - and the kids love that. While I was there most kids did several runs through the tunnel.
Check out the clip below. The girl in the pink dress goes in at the beginning of the video and is back by the end of it. 

Here I follow her from the exit to the entrance...

In the photo below there is a teenager behind a couple of kids.

Nobody spent much time observing the piranhas. At some point there was a group of mothers in front of the window - they neither read the signs nor paid any attention to the fish, but conversed happily with each other, occasionally waving at their kids. Neither did the kids spend much (if any) time looking at the fish. But they all enjoyed what they were doing!
Maybe they had so much fun they'll want to come back or at least they'll tell their friends about it and generate more revenue that way - which might eventually fund your renovation or conservation projects.
Here, too, the bottom line is: First fun, then fish and then the rest will fall into place.

With this blog entry I wanted to show you a variety of possible indoor play activities that could easily be part of or nearby an animal exhibit.
This is about burning off pent up energy. It is not about fish, not about conservation, not about education - but with a clever layout and the right timing you might slither your message in - and more effectively than in any other way because your visitors are having fun.

All play areas presented are simple - I left out anything complex, hugely expensive or technology driven - I'll do that in my next blog.

Most larger aquariums have an outdoor playground and some even an indoor play area - somewhere.
But better yet is to intertwine the need for action and participation with observing the fish: bringing fun and fish together.

And this is what is to come. Any doubts? Looking back in time might give you a good idea where the future is headed. Judging from the black and white photo below and the examples I have shown before, I find it certain that visitor participation and kid activities will play a larger part in public aquariums.

 (Photo copyright Karl Rauschkolb - click on image to enlarge)
This photo from the former Cleveland Aquarium shows that three of the six tanks are above the visitors' eye level. Aquariums have come a long way for kids.

If you offer benches then you cater to the need of the weary visitors.  If you offer play, climb, crawl and jump areas then you offer something for those with extra energy. Most likely children. Most likely the driving force behind the wish to visit your aquarium; and remember: parents do what children love!