Play is serious business at Chester Zoo. We’ve been working hard to make the zoo as playful as possible. Why? Because play helps ensure a FANTASTIC zoo visit for our guests and it can even help us ACHIEVE our conservation mission.
Playgrounds have been part of the zoo experience for many years. But, as we’ve come to realise through our work with play experts, play at the zoo is about so much more than playgrounds. It isn’t really about any particular activity. It’s more about the qualities of play behaviour. It’s about creating spaces where children (and adults) can be silly, play games, hop, skip and jump their way around the zoo, make believe, have magical adventures and explore new ideas in playful ways.
Over the last few years, we’ve enjoyed and benefited from working with a range of academics, play workers and consultants who focus on play. Mike Barclay and Ben Tawil from Ludicology worked with us to evaluate how the zoo environment supports play and to develop guidance for the future development of play. Charlotte Derry and Dr Stuart Lester worked with staff teams to help us recognise playful behaviours, enhance play through our interactions with guests, get to grips with play principles and test different playful interventions.
The result of all this learning is that we now aim to support play throughout the zoo experience. We run regular staff training sessions, have a management group focused on play development and consider play when developing new areas of the zoo. Our major play areas provide opportunities for adventurous play, and we’ve recently introduced sand and water play and enhanced the landscape around the zoo to make it more playable. Our skipping lane, willow tunnels and other play paths make play part of the experience of moving around the zoo. We make games and build adventures and invite our guests to play. We also build playful approaches and a little bit of nonsense into our learning activities and interactions with guests. Asking ‘What if an elephant had no bones?’ is much more fun than teaching didactically about the importance of a skeleton!
“The time, space and permission children need to play is constrained by many factors, often unnecessarily so. By prioritising and paying close attention to children’s play the zoo continue to demonstrate how opportunities for play can be incorporated in and throughout the whole environment. Proving it is possible to create environments that work equally well for children as they do for adults.”
Ben and Mike, Directors, Ludicology
So how can play help us achieve OUR MISSION of preventing extinction?
There is evidence that playing outdoors can increase a connection to nature, and we know from research that a connection to nature increases the likelihood that someone will take action to protect the natural world. We also know that children who have had their need to play met are more likely to engage meaningfully in education activities – including those that teach them about conservation and how they can play a role in preventing extinction, something that is core to our work here at the zoo.
As well as helping us achieve our mission, play is important to us because it matters to children, and we work with hundreds of thousands of children every year. Play supports child development and wellbeing. Children have an innate drive to play and we want to make sure that is supported whilst they are with us here at the zoo. We’re far from alone in recognising this. The UN recognises it in its Convention on the Rights of the Child – article 31 provides for a child’s right to play. With children’s opportunities to play becoming more limited, in part due to traffic concerns and our increasingly structured lives, zoos can have an important role to play in providing a space where children and their families can play.
It isn’t just children whose health and wellbeing is supported by play. We all benefit from being a little bit more playful. Whilst we’re very serious about developing play at the zoo, it’s also a lot of fun. As one staff member recently commented “It’s nice to smile, makes me feel better, affects your mood when you see magical moments”.