Children's Paths: A How to Guide by Martin

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.

Doctor fish tank - Big hit with visitors by Martin

I remember that a few years ago a small fish called Doctor fish (Garra rufa) hit the news and many blogs. The fish eat dead skin cells of spa visitors leaving the healthy skin to grow. An article from China Radio International has more on this.

Now the fish has made it into public aquariums, or at least one aquarium, where visitors can submerge their hands into the water and see and feel (!) the fish nibbling on their hands.

Here is a short video clip:

Touch tanks are usually popular with kids, but adults are often reluctant to the get their hands messy, or even think it unhygienic and unhealthy. But apparently not so with this Doctor fish tank. Maybe because of its name or its uses in spas and for skin treatments, but I saw just as many adults - if not more - as kids trying to get their skin "cleaned".

Below: Happy adults getting their hands wet and cleaned

Here at the Shinagawa aquarium, Tokyo, they had two smaller cylinders tanks. A step in the front of the display allowed children to reach in.
I was very excited about this exhibit and couldn't wait to tell clients and the world at large about it. Since some, if not most touch tanks, are controversial, I thought this would be the perfect win-win situation: Visitors of all ages love to interact with these fish and the fish, I assume, love to eat.
But then I came across the following Wikipedia article:
Garra rufa can be kept in an aquarium at home; while not strictly a "beginner's fish", it is quite hardy. For treatment of skin diseases, aquarium specimens are not well suited as the skin-feeding behavior fully manifests only under conditions where the food supply is somewhat scarce and unpredictable.
End of quote

Does that mean the fish only nibbles on skin when it is starving? And, is it true? If so, it wouldn't be ethical to display them unless they are also fed otherwise.

No instructions - say it with a photo

I don't like reading instructions - anywhere, anytime. Saying it with a photo is so much faster and easier to absorb. I have now seen it used a couple times in science museums, which have some of the worst offenders when it comes to having to read long winding instructions before you know what you need to do.
The doctor fish exhibit had a big sign with many words of which I understood none because they were in Japanese. But looking at the photo I knew immediately what to do, even if I'd been the only visitor.

Chicago Millenimum Park (1 of 2) - The Cloud Gate sculpture by Martin

Before continuing with posting about my Japanese zoo and aquarium travel I have to throw in two cool  things I saw last weekend in Chicago.

A question for zoo and aquarium educators:
Do you know of an interactive device that works for all ages and for all cultures and that brings awareness to oneself and to the environment around you without needing explanations, and that is also maintenance free
I found it in downtown Chicago in the Millennium Park: a mirror sculpture named the Cloud Gate also nicknamed "The Bean" by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor . It makes you aware of yourself, the people you are with, the reflected environment, and - most importantly - it is fun to engage with. You can't help waving your arms even if your are 50 feet away to see if you can spot yourself in this mirror sculpture.

Photos below: you can't help but touching it

I couldn't resist either

I saw people of all ages and from all cultures touching this sculpture.

The best of all:  it is not intrusive to the environment it is placed in. It doesn't draw attention to itself, like the Flamingo by Alexander Calder (not to say anything against this great sculpture), instead it reaches out (reflects) and makes you turn around and brings awareness to the reflected skyline. For me, that spells: environmental awareness - make the visitor see - really look, and wake them up to their surroundings - whether it is the skyline of Chicago or a piece of nature, an animal or a large heard of animals....
There must be way to apply this idea to zoos and aquariums....
Ray Robinson, a friend and former colleague of mine,  once told me of a rainforest exhibit he visited in a zoo in Sweden where, when you crossed a bridge, there was a mirror installed to one side that not only gave the illusion of a larger rain forest area but it would also reflect your image back, and you could see yourself standing on the bridge in the midst of lush tropical vegetation. He loved it. I now understand why.

Here is a  video clip of "The Bean" . It ends with a kid doing a handstand against the mirror wall.

It is truly the sculpture of the millennium. Don't miss it if you are in Chicago.
For all photos and videos above: @2010

To quote Chicago-traveler:
Kapoor Sculpture on SBC Plaza (Cloud Gate) video of "The Bean"
A major feature of Millennium Park is the 110-ton elliptical sculpture designed by the celebrated British artist Anish Kapoor, one of the most prolific and respected sculptors in the world. "Cloud Gate," the monumental sculpture located on SBC Plaza was named by the artist on June 29 when the final panel of the elliptical sculpture was installed.

The sculpture is forged of a seamless series of highly-polished stainless steel "plates" that create an elliptically-arched, highly reflective work with Chicago’s skyline and Millennium Park itself as a dramatic backdrop. Visitors will be able to fully experience the majestic nature of the work by literally walking through and around, as it was designed for public interaction. Inspired by liquid mercury, the sculpture is among the largest in the world, measuring 66-feet long by 33-feet high. More info...