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What do hippos and little humans have in common?

Bronze hippo wading in a puddle

Woodland Park Zoo

Seattle, Washington

Everybody loves the zoo, right! Well, actually, my kids have never been big zoo-goers. I don’t totally understood why, but a visit to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington gave me some insights into what might change our minds.

The Bloom: What’s the attraction?

Woodland Park Zoo is a lovely city zoo set in Woodland Park. The zoo’s paths snake through trees opening up to animal enclosures and exhibits along the way. It’s a lovely place to explore rain or shine because of the mixture of indoor and outdoor spaces.

The Nectar: What’s sweet about this place?

What I LOVED about this zoo is that they built in ways for children to play like the animals near the animals. Several of the exhibit areas included lovely bronze animal sculptures or animal habitats to climb in, on, and over. They also had two animal-themed play areas, one indoor and one outdoor. Having a chance to PLAY, not just watch or read about the animals, totally made the difference for my kids. They wanting to stay at each area longer rather than taking a quick glance at the enclosure and running on to the next. As we played, we had a chance to explore the animals’ behaviors and their habitats in more depth. The best was a hippo sculpture in a natural depression along the path. On the wet spring afternoon we visited, it looked like the hippo was wading in a puddle--a favorite activity of hippos and kids alike!

The Pollen: What observations might pollinate good ideas elsewhere?

Play, play, play! Kids learn through play. This is probably not news to anyone, but I had never realized how much more my kids would get out of the zoo if they had relevant, open-ended, imaginative play opportunities right there next to the animals. The experience was so much richer when they could see a real hippo while splashing in a puddle with the hippo’s bronze representative wading next to them.

Curious, I found an interesting little study from a Dutch researcher looking at how children interact with live animals. The author concluded, “In my view, the ‘fusion of horizons,’ the shared life space, is the core of the relationship between the child and the animal.” That is, the experiences the child has watching, interacting, mimicking, and playing around the animal is what forms a connection in the child’s mind.

Since the stated purpose of many zoos is to cultivate an understanding of and empathy for animals, it seems that more opportunities for this type of play in proximity to the animals would benefit a zoo’s mission. There is a clear financial benefit as well. I find that having multiple open-ended play spaces indoors and outdoors is the key for getting my membership dollars.

I’ll be looking for more great examples of how to “fuse horizons” between children and animals (or other living things) as we explore this summer!

P.S. My cousin, who grew up in Seattle, gives a strong warning about the bronze animal sculptures. She has vivid memories of hot summer days at the zoo punctuated with kids getting scorched by the metal. Ouch! I’ll be grateful we visited in the drizzle of spring.


Margadant-van Arcken, M. (1984). "THERE'S A REAL DOG IN THE CLASSROOM?": THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN YOUNG CHILDREN AND ANIMALS. Children's Environments Quarterly,1(3), 13-16. Retrieved from

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