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.