Kids today have a "nature deficit disorder,” asserts John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England, and he hopes that the new Children’s Zoo at Franklin Park can provide the cure.
“Kids don’t get out and play in nature the way they used to,” Linehan said. “When I was a kid, I spent hours and hours in the woods, and nowadays that’s not the case for way too many kids. We’re trying to address that and demystify nature."
Called Nature’s Neighborhoods, the zoo’s new children’s exhibit mimics four types of ecosystems —woodlands, wetlands, grasslands and thicket — and invites visitors to learn about those areas and the animals that inhabit them through play.
The project, unveiled in 2014, involved demolishing the old Children’s Zoo and spending $7.2 million on the new exhibit.
“We have fantastic programs for teens at the zoo, but it became clear to us that we need to start earlier than when they’re teens to get kids understanding nature and really appreciating it and all the incredible biodiversity we share this planet with,” Linehan said.
The new exhibit is geared towards kids ages 3 to 8, with a focus on interactive elements. Kids are welcome to climb up into an eagle’s nest build around an oak tree, offering binoculars and a bird's-eye view of the Children’s Zoo area. There’s also a “prairie dog pop-up” that features glass domes kids can crawl into to be surrounded by the grassland animals.
“You have to crawl in on your hands and knees, so you feel like you’re underground,” Linehan said. “They’re getting a little taste of what it’s like to be a prairie dog.”
Linehan said that he’s already heard from parents who can see how much their kids enjoys all the space to run and play.
“From one parent, I heard how their kids get bored in the regular zoo, but this is so interactive that it really got them engaged at a much deeper level,” he said.
Each area in the zoo is referred to as a neighborhood because that helps kids understand how an ecosystem functions, Linehan said. Plus, it’s easy for them, especially those who grow up in a city, to understand what a neighborhood is.
And just like a city neighborhood, the new Children’s Zoo isn’t done developing. Zoo officials are still adding in more animals like muntjac, a small type of deer that will live with the pandas next to a bamboo climbing interactive for the kids. The nature outside of the zoo’s walls has adapted to the new exhibit as well — Linehan said wild dragonflies have started laying eggs in the turtle pond.
"That adds even another level, and we’re trying to get interpretive signage out there so kids notice those little things, too,” he said. “It’s just going to get better.”