Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Children's Paths: A How to Guide

A children's path is a secondary path that winds around the main path creating an element of excitement, activity or discovery. It's geared towards children but laid out so that adults can walk along and participate.

For the children's park at the AllwetterZOO in Münster, Germany, we created a few guidelines to help us design this type of path. I've found these rules helpful in later projects.

Rule #1: The children's path follows the main path (Schematic sketch below).

The paths are simplified and straightened for illustrative purpose 
Parents that don't want to take the children's path can stroll along the main path pushing strollers with toddlers or pulling empty carts, while their kids are weaving along the children's path.

Children's  Park; Zoo Münster
A level of control is maintained by making sure that the children's path always ends up back on the main path and ahead of the parent, and by establishing visual connection points between the paths.

Therefore the path never does the following:

It never backtracks, so the child doesn't end up behind the parent, and it doesn't branch off into other areas or jump ahead.

Instead the path always returns to the main route and follows the visitor flow, and it has visual contact points along its route.

It doesn't matter in which direction the visitor flow streams. By making the layout easy to understand and follow we make it it predictable; "Where's our kid?" "Don't worry he'll cross our path in a second". Peace of mind for the adult is the goal here.

Rule # Mark the entrance(s) in a way that signals "Children, this is for you"!

At the Münster Zoo we placed a sign and colorful markers made of twisted locust branches at the entrance to each children's path.

We marked the entrance to each path segment with a willow arch just tall enough for a person in a wheelchair to pass through. Kids could run right under it, but adults had to bend, which brings me to the third rule:

Rule # Scale it down to kid size - but allow adults access as well.
The arches already designate the kid-scale. Next we reduced the width of the path to give it the feel of a foot trail (about three feet wide, just enough for a wheelchair to pass), and we scaled down other elements and spaces. The intended feeling: This is for kids. The photos below illustrate this concept.

Above The handrail is at a perfect height (kid scaled) while adults would have to reach down.

Above The railing into the wolf exhibit is lowered to children's height.

Above The a tree trunk over the path: kids can walk through, adults have to watch out.

Rule #4  Make the path an adventure.

Above  A wobble-bridge

Above Climbing over rocks

Above Climbing over to a hidey hole beyond

Each path segment has its own highlight and multiple attractions that are designed specifically for each animal and location.

To keep the path wheelchair accessible all physically challenging activities can be bypassed.

We also used varying substrates along the paths including bark mulch, sand, wood trunks, and rubber along climbing elements, to set them apart from the main path and to give it a more rugged, adventurous feel.

To add to the sense of adventure the children's path is largely hidden from the main path. At certain highlights and whenever a child faces a challenge there is visual contact with the main path to allow the kid to share the accomplishment: "Mom, look at me!" This also to gives the parent an element of control.
Elements of a children's path: Entrance arches and highlight with visual contact to main path.
Rule #5    Keep the focus on the animal
Keeping the focus on the animal should be the bedrock rule for any designer working in a zoo setting.

The danger is that a children's path with its adventurous offerings can become a distraction and a world in itself.
But if designed correctly it can be a sneaky way to bring the child (and parent) back to the exhibit  again and again resulting in additional viewing opportunities for more discoveries of the animal and its behavior.

At the wolf exhibit at the Children's Park at the Münster Zoo children can see the animals from different vantage points and from different locations - each with a different feel - keeping the viewing experience interesting and fresh.

The photos below show two of the children's path special viewing points.

Wolf observed from a look-out tower

and observed through large cracks between rocks (no glass.)

By changing the viewing point from lower or higher than normal, by adding some activity, or by changing the ambiance, we can keep the viewing experience of the same animal and the same exhibit fresh and exciting.

A children's path offers something specifically for the younger visitor. It is filled with discovery and adventure and can be shared within the group and through the generations.
This can mean more time spent at the zoo, and most importantly (for the children) time spend filled with fun and activity.

The photos in this post are all from the Children's Park at the Zoo Münster in Germany. I designed this exhibit in conjunction with the inhouse zoo team of Johannes Deiting and Dag Encke in 2005.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Engaging the Visitor

Immersion exhibits have traditionally allowed the visitor and animal to be in the same environment. The visitor is 'immersed' in the animal's habitat with viewing points along the path.

We challenged ourselves in the yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula) exhibit at Nuremberg Zoo in Germany, to immerse the visitor in the animal's habitat and in its activities.
Martens like to play - so do visitors. Climbing up to look around, eating, splashing in water, hopping along stones - all of these activities could be shared experiences.

Our starting point was to give the martens a rich and varied exhibit that would allow natural behavior. Then we mirrored these opportunities for the visitor. In effect we built an extra large exhibit and cut it in half with one side for the animal, and the other for the visitor.

On the marten side a small stream runs into a pond,

where the animal can...

copyright Dr. Helmut Mägdefrau
wet its snout,...
copyright Dr. Helmut Mägdefrau
or its feet..
or dig for food.

On the visitor side a stream crosses the path,...

...allowing the visitor to step in and play...

or dig around under rocks.

A large, old oak stands in the center of the exhibit. Its branches create an elevated path for the martens. The high branches are a favorite look-out point for the animal.

We took the visitor along an elevated path to a great look-out point. On a raised platform the visitors can see eye to eye with the animals in the tree.

The martens run through the branches in all seasons and at all times of the day.

copyright Dr. Helmut Mägdefrau

They also enjoy stumps and limbs on the ground.

copyright Dr. Helmut Mägdefrau

copyright Dr. Helmut Mägdefrau
Wood stumps for visitors to climb on.

The animal chute between exhibit areas is hidden by this stacked wood. It gives kids another spot to climb. 

Stepping stones are not only for kids and animals.

Even visitors beyond their teenage years enjoy stepping away from the trodden path

Outdoor dining is another shared activity.

The zoo has a public feeding once a day.

Located near the marten's feeding place is a viewing shelter.

(Rocks for the kids to climb and jump on while parents sit on the bench)
A picnic table and bench allows visitors to take out their sandwiches and a thermos and enjoy eating and watching the animals.

Creating opportunities for visitors to step away from the asphalt path - to climb, to hop, to take off their shoes and splash - means more time at the exhibit and more time to see the animal and its behavior.

More time spent at exhibit means more time spent at the zoo and that can translate into repeat visits.

Play time and discovery opportunities are a chance for families to interact, which was the main goal for coming to the zoo in the first place.

This exhibit opened in 2008 through the combined design efforts of the Nuremberg Zoo, Führes Landscape Architects, and myself.
copyright Dr. Helmut Mägdefrau