Firsthand Learning at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo
By Douglas Smith
When Arnott Folsom launched the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in 1965 with personal funds and the energetic arm twisting of his friends, he envisioned a zoo designed for children, to instill in them a respect for all living things by introducing them to the wonders of the natural world. The plan was for an action place – a place where young and old could see, touch and do. The Zoo was initially constructed on three acres of city owned land. The animal collection numbered nearly 120 which were sold annually until 1974. Today the Zoo is three times that size with a professional staff, AZA accreditation, and 300 animals of 90 species. Our success attests, 43 years later, to the durability of Arnott’s vision, and the staff’s commitment to our mission: “to enrich lives through firsthand interaction with living things.”
An Instant Hit
Arnott had a personal interest in dinosaurs and knew that kids felt the same. When he designed the entrance, visitors were greeted by a life-size (fifty feet and over a ton) brass and concrete sculpture of a stegosaurus skeleton, presiding over a small, but lovely, entrance fountain. “Stego” was an instant hit and became, over the years, first a landmark and then an icon. But anyone familiar with a 35’ diameter sculpture fountain would know that Stego had a dark side. Children were drawn to it, climbed on it, stubbed their toes on the guy wires; make-a-wish money was thrown and then retrieved by later guests – everything requiring the attention of Zoo staff. The circle of sycamore trees surrounding the fountain overcame all efforts at skimming and cleaning. Hot days and unchlorinated water made a photograph of the fountain more pleasant than the real thing. Fast forward through forty-two years of maintenance and management of a beloved icon to the point where deep and expensive renovation was required and you understand the Zoo’s dilemma and opportunity.
Staff discussions on an appropriate exhibit and use for Stego took nearly three months, and revolved around the Lincoln Children’s Zoo “Learn firsthand” motto. Discovery, engagement, safe play, learning and movement were all on the required list when a major donor joined the discussion with both cash and a request for a “dig activity.” The donor’s longtime interest in paleontology and successful gifts to the local natural history museum drove his request that we interest children in the science of paleontology. Mimi Wickless, the Zoo’s director of education, was familiar with the museum’s small, shallow “dig activity” where kids could carefully brush away the sand from bone shapes molded into the bottom of the dig. She appreciated the kid’s sense of discovery as the bones were revealed, but saw an opportunity as their interest waned when they couldn’t pick them up and handle them. She also realized that a strictly scientific exhibit with Stego was a stretch – Nebraska was under water at the time of the stegosaurus.
Design work for the adaptive reuse of Stego and the fountain progressed along side of activity planning, with the 4,500 sq. ft. Stego’s Big Dig as the exciting result. Opened in late June 2008, and costing $250,000, nearly 70 percent from a single donor, with another $80,000 in donations, the exhibit has become the centerpiece of ZooVille commons at the center of the Zoo. Design credit is shared by Zoo staff and local firm, BVH Architects. Physically, Stego has retained his historic position – just fourteen feet higher in the air, supported by a single column from the center of the former fountain. The fountain wells have been filled with 14" of washed sand and 50 to 60 clean bones have been distributed and buried. A small building to house interpretive materials is adjacent, and shade structures both soften the look and cool the guests. All of the plantings and the lovely circle of sycamore trees were retained, forming a natural enclosure with clear sightlines to the commons area where the Safari Café, Bug Buddies building and the Camelot Commons Education Center are located. One could hardly imagine a better showcase for the renovated Stego, or a more inviting activity based exhibit.
But the real excitement has centered on the activities, which appeal especially to two-to-twelve year olds but have proven engaging even for adults. Timed visits to the exhibit have ranged from two to forty minutes, with the average being 12-15 minutes. Stego continues to draw kids, and the expanse of sand beneath him takes full advantage of the “see sand – jump in sand” response you’re familiar with. No introduction, explanation or orientation is required; children see others finding things in the sand and showing them to the attendant and soon they start digging. Discovered bones are taken to a “PaleoPal” and compared to a full animal skeleton for identification. Bones from a mouse, raccoon, dog, bear, horse and a replica dinosaur demonstrate that a femur is a femur, and help show the commonality of all living creatures. Younger children show great delight in just knowing where their treasure fits on the skeleton. Older children want to see each side of the same joint and conversation moves toward cartilage and connective tissue. It’s not uncommon to see a PaleoPal wordlessly touch a child’s back and witness the “aha” moment of recognition – the found scapula in their hand, in the skeleton before them, and in their own body. What better demonstration of our motto, “Learn firsthand.” Children are invited to rebury their found bones, which most do, and the eagerness of their effort leads us to suspect that soon the active strata will be at the bottom of the fountain.
As one of very few zoos focused solely on children, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo works very hard in every part of the Zoo to engage children intimately with nature, as we have neither the acreage nor the finances for expansive exhibits. Our animals can mostly be experienced from within five feet, our butterfly pavilion encourages gentle touching, and Stego’s Big Dig continues our forty three year tradition of active, engaging, hands-on learning.
Douglas Smith is the Associate Director of Development at Lincoln Children’s Zoo