26 May 2022 Attractions Management Handbook

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Attractions Management Handbook - Wild Child

Insights: Zoos & Aquariums

Wild Child

Disney is supporting a ground-breaking AZA initiative to encourage outdoor family time. Aimee Johns tells us why natural play promotes well being and deeper animal conservation values

Aimee Johns champions daily nature play
Open-ended exploration time is vital for sound child development

In today’s world, children often grow up without the opportunity to experience the wonders of nature. They lack the type of outdoor time that includes imaginative play, exposure to plants and animals – and physical activity. Children’s lives have also changed due to the lack of greenspace and the added distractions of technology. But the importance of playing outdoors has not been forgotten. Parents, experts and educators are now striving to embrace a return to “nature play”.

So what is nature play and why is it important? Nature play is playing with nature in nature – unstructured play in green spaces like local parks, zoos, aquariums or even your own backyard. Nature play isn’t planned out or led by adults. It’s open-ended exploration time for children that can also allow families to play and explore together, instead of adults focusing on supervising children.

Research continues to build and support the benefits of nature play – so strongly that unstructured nature play is considered by some to be fundamental to youth. It may be as important to children as good nutrition and quality sleep.

Play is an essential everyday part of a child’s life, but not all types of play are equal. Indoor versus outdoor directly affects the quality of play and child development. Increased levels of physical activity when engaged in nature play can lead to improved health. This, in turn, enhances memory and cognitive function, influencing the ability to learn. Collectively, research shows that children’s physical, social, academic and physiological health is positively impacted from daily experiences of true nature play.

This focus on nature play has found a perfect home in zoos and aquariums. This is why Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities across the USA are actively engaging in nature play by building more natural play spaces. They are also incorporating nature play into education programmes and leading Family Nature Clubs in their local communities.

In 2014, AZA launched Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium to spearhead innovative ways for accredited facilities to establish or enhance family-centered nature play experiences in their local communities. This initiative is supported by the Disney Conservation Fund with financial, logistical and creative support because it “increases the time children and families spend in nature”.

The AZA initiative has created online resources such as eGuides, webinars and a toolkit so families and informal educators can learn more about supporting nature play in a zoo or aquarium, and beyond. It has also built key partnerships between AZA and other non-profit organisations working to connect children and families to nature, including the Children & Nature Network and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE).

“It made sense to partner with AZA because of their wide reach and great reputation. We have things to share and partnering with like-minded organizations helps to move both organizations forward,” explains Janice Swaisgood, former director of family initiatives at the Children & Nature Network.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the initiative comes through an annual grants programme, offering AZA members the opportunity to apply for US$5,000 and US$10,000 grants to fund family nature play programming that builds partnerships within their communities.

More than US$750,000 has been granted to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to support over 100 projects that connect families to nature through nature play programming, family nature clubs and construction of nature play spaces at zoos and aquariums. More than 135 collaborating partners and 600,000 people have been involved in nature play workshops, programmes, events, family clubs and play spaces, large and small.

“We have animals and we also work with the natural environments; it became one of those ‘aha’ moments,” says Heidi Faris, grants coordinator, Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium.

This AZA initiative has undoubtedly had a powerful impact on the lives of those who visit these zoos and aquariums.


1. Reduces stress
Spending time in nature or city green spaces that include plants and access to natural play spaces have been shown to reduce stress in youths and adults. (Wells and Evans, 2003)

2. Improves nutrition
Children who are active in the garden and participate in growing their own food tend to eat more fruits and vegetables. They’re more aware of healthy nutrition and are also going to be more apt to continue healthy eating habits throughout their adult life. (Bell and Dyment, 2008)

3. Improves academic performance
Studies in the USA have shown that students attending outdoor-focused schools along with other forms of nature-based experiential education show noticeable growth in social studies, science, maths, language and arts. (American Institute for Research, 2011)

4. Improves creativity and problem solving
Studies carried out on school playgrounds found that children engaged in more creative forms of play in the green spaces and also played more cooperatively. Nature plays an important role in developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving and intellectual development. (Kellert, 2005)

5. Improves eyesight
Time spent outdoors is known to reduce rates of nearsightedness or myopia in both children and adolescents. (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2011)

6. Increases physical activity
Children who engage in nature operate at a higher level of play and benefit from an increased level of physical activity. (Bell and Dyment, 2008)

7. Improves social relations
Children who have regular opportunities for free unstructured nature play tend to be smarter, healthier and happier. They’re also more apt to get along with others. (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005)

8. Improves self-discipline
Access to nature tends to have a peaceful and calming effect and helps to enhance self-control and self-discipline. (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan, 2001)


© bubutu/Shutterstock

Lincoln Children’s Zoo climbs a mountain

Aimee Johns
Director of Education, Lincoln Children’s Zoo

A highlight for visitors to the zoo – including children booked onto the daily Zoo Camps led by skilled instructors during the summer – is the Natural Playground.
This area boasts natural structures designed to stimulate play and inspire creative interactions with nature. A large mound of compacted dirt acts as the playground’s centrepiece. Children spend time playing on the hillside and exploring the earth in its most basic form.

These interactions are part of all the nature programmes at Lincoln Children’s Zoo; from exploring to interacting with natural play elements, the Natural Playground provides an ideal location for exploring the natural world. During educational programmes, children create insect habitats and combine imaginative play with nature play by pretending to be animals playing in their natural habitat.

“The Natural Playground is a destination at our zoo that children can learn, imagine and interact in ways that are rooted in nature,” says Aimee Johns, director of education at the zoo.


Natural structures inspire creative interactions with the environment
Phoenix Zoo makes a date

Ruth Allard
Executive Vce President of conservation and education, phoenix zoo

“The US$10,000 AZA Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium grant allowed us to deliver a series of workshops for 16 families interested in starting family nature clubs in their communities. In just one week, we received 81 applications from caregivers interested in the workshops, immediately telling us that there’s strong interest in family nature play in our area.

“Response to our culminating Day of Nature Play event from employees, volunteers, community partners, zoo members and new friends strengthened our commitment to continuing this work,” says Ruth Allard, executive vice president of conservation and education at Phoenix Zoo/Arizona Center for Nature Conservation in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

The initiative was intentionally named “Nature Play Begins...” to encourage programmes that build confidence for children and families to continue their nature play beyond the visit. Feeling more comfortable in nature and embracing learning through discovery are key goals.

“With my family, I’ve definitely changed my parenting while they play outside,” reports a mother of two and participant in the zoo’s nature play programme.
“I now stop and see opportunities to play everywhere we go, which my kids – who are three and one – love. One time, we stopped and played with the dead leaves under a tree in a random parking lot. Now my kids beg me to stop and play whenever they see similar trees and if I have time.

“My whole parenting mindset has changed for the better. I also feel confident passing on the knowledge I’ve gained for future nature club events.”


Embracing learning through discovery is key
Tennessee Aquarium sparks appreciation

Julie Gregory
senior Educator, tennessee aquarium

Aquariums are also active participants in engaging families in nature play. Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, received a US$5000 Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium grant in 2015 and is making a big impact in the local community with its monthly Nature Nuts programme.

Nature Nuts encourages children (age 5 to 12) and their families to explore and discover living things in their backyard and beyond. There are 12 sessions: six at the aquarium and six at community partner sites such as the Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center.

Programmes in 2017 include Birds in Bracelets, Bug Hunt, Creek Stomp and Why Is That Turtle Beeping?

Educators and experts at Tennessee Aquarium also provide materials to extend these sessions and further encourage adults to become role models in nature play and discovery for their family.

“Our goal is to offer an experience similar to a junior naturalist programme,” says Julie Gregory, senior educator at Tennessee Aquarium.

“Kids will have the opportunities to delve into the aquarium in different ways and explore the unique and amazing habitats in our area, at times even cruising aboard the aquarium’s boat, the River Gorge Explorer.

“We know that spending time outdoors is fundamental to helping to spark a lifelong appreciation of the natural world. These benefits are multiplied when families explore and experience nature together.”


Nature Nuts encourages children to discover living things in their own backyard

About the author


Aimee Johns

Aimee Johns, director of education, Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

[email protected]

Originally published in Attractions Handbook 2017 edition

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