03-08-21 | Department

Move Like an Animal

Minnesota Zoo Playground
by Tom Whitlock, ASLA, and Matt Wilkins, ASLA, Damon Farber Associates

The Landscape Architects with Damon Farber Associates designed this playground within Minnesota Zoo around the theme of "Move Like an Animal." The team worked with kids to explore all the different ways animals move in nature and then tried to replicate those movements (running, climbing, swinging, leaping, etc...) through the use of natural materials. They also wanted to get people up into the trees to experience the tree canopy.
This is a 2-5 age group area which includes the native field stone labyrinth as a feature that mimicked the form of a snail's shell. The design was created behind the idea of trying to capture simple forms found in nature and transforming them into playable objects.
25,000 sq. ft. of invasive species were removed from the site and replaced with native materials like Sumac, Viburnum, red and white Pine, and Woodland wildflowers. The path around the playground is constructed of crushed Dresser Trap Rock with whole stones used as the perimeter of the walkway.
The playground features three plastic slides ranging from 12' to 20' drops so kids can experience the significant slopes found on site. The team intended to have the playground feel as natural as possible, using natural materials that complemented the native character of the site. The slides were designed to blend with the natural color of the wood elements. All structures were constructed from whole trees, more specifically, Black Locust harvested from local forests. Black Locust is an invasive species but an extremely dense wood making it an effective and thematic selection.

"To immerse the child in nature, to foster active play in the outdoors, and to reveal the curiosity and wonder of flora and fauna in our natural environment." - Minnesota Zoo mission statement for the new playground.

As our children spend as much as 6+ hours a day on devices and staring at screens, the gap between them and nature continues to grow. Research indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy physical and emotional development of our children. The Center for Disease Control states, "Obesity affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents in 2020". As part of the Minnesota Zoo's mission to connect people, animals, and the natural world, they have taken an important step in reversing these trends to re-connect children with nature and foster environmental stewardship through the creation of the Hanifl Family Wild Woods nature-based play area. It is the first nature-based playground at the Minnesota Zoo.

Damon Farber Associates lead the design of the project. Their involvement began with the analysis of an otherwise overgrown, neglected, and underappreciated corner of the Minnesota Zoo that overlooks an existing wetland complex. Damon Farber engaged Zoo member families - including parents, grandparents, and children to understand how the playground could enhance their experience at the Zoo. The process included interactive model making by the children to illustrate how they wanted to play. They created models that described running, climbing, exploring, sliding, jumping, building, digging, and pretending. These basic actions, generated by both muscle and creative thought, began to set the program of the play feature development for Hanifl Family Wild Woods.

Active play is key to healthy development for children. Careful investigation of active play yielded design ideas that support development of childhood specific body systems. The rope walk encourages vestibular senses of balance and orientation, the log climbing structure supports proprioception - awareness of self-movement and bilateral movement - and motor skills such as hand eye coordination are integrated into elements across the site. Music features, mazes, and sand boxes promote creativity, problem solving, and social skills.

The design of Hanifl Family Wilds Woods supports healthy human systems but also represents a form of regenerative design. The site reinforces the Zoo's mission and embodies a mutually beneficial relationship between ecological restoration and play. During the site preparation, approximately 25,000 sq. ft. of invasive plant materials were removed and replanted with native understory to enhance the ecological integrity of the site. Over 75 existing desirable canopy and understory trees were preserved to provide shade and maintain the woodland character of the site.

With the exception of three slides and monkey bar hand holds, the entire play area was constructed of local (materials were sourced from less than 200 miles away), recycled (resilient rubber surfacing from shredded tires), bio-based (organic mulch and engineered wood fiber) and renewable materials (whole-tree timbers). 170 tons of regionally invasive Black Locust harvested from local forests provided 4,200 linear feet of timber that proved to be the perfect building material to construct the play features.

The Hanifl Family Wild Woods Nature Based Play Area has become a precedent for all future play at the Minnesota Zoo. Nature based elements have been incorporated into exhibit viewing areas, areas of parent respite, and in larger gathering areas. It has become an immersive experience for kids playing throughout the sprawling 400-acre campus.

Owner: Minnesota Zoo
Landscape Architect: Damon Farber Associates
Tom Whitlock, ASLA
Matt Wilkens, ASLA
Contractor: PCL Construction
Play Elements: Whole Trees, inc.

As seen in LASN magazine, February 2021.


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