Research and Experimentation at Chester Zoo: Designing for Play

Wednesday July 1, 2020

Investing time and resources in children's play is a sound investment. But, as with any investment you would want to make sure it was in fact sound. That's where the combined experiment and research approach is invaluable. This blog revisits our work with Chester zoo as they continued on with their experiment and research approach.

In this post, we use an example of simple and low-key physical play interventions to illustrate three things:

  1. The value of research in informing and evaluating changes to the built environment intended to support children’s play.

  2. A ‘what if’, experimental approach can help test out ideas before any serious capital spend.

  3. Interventions designed with play as the only outcome are likely to elicit the most playful responses from children and other people.

As described in a previous blog post, before Chester Zoo invested significant financial and human resources in improving opportunities for play across the zoo, they commissioned us to carry out research to inform their approach. Our initial report made several recommendations about:

  • the development of destination play spaces around the zoo
  • the value to children and families of being able to play throughout their journey around the zoo
  • staff, who were already very play aware, supporting their professional development through some more play training and education.

Early in 2018, we were re-commissioned to evaluate the influence of this work and make recommendations about how the zoo could further develop their approach to supporting children’s play. By this time staff in the Guest Experience and Learning & Discovery teams had undergone ‘Play Champion’ training facilitated by good friends Stuart Lester and Charlotte Derry. This had led to an experimental approach involving zoo staff spray painting temporary markings on the tarmac paths at various locations around the zoo intended to instigate brief moments of play. These markings came to be known as ‘play paths’ and, as a consequence of their success, some were painted in permanently creating colourful floor markings in areas where people walk between exhibits or stand watching animals.

The play paths included a skipping lane, a tree branch, some elephant footprints, a group of butterflies, a long squiggly line, flamingo footprints, log ends (like those the gibbons can be seen balancing on), lines of fishes and a colourful vine with flowers. In addition to the play paths, there were a number of the ‘what if’ question signs attached to fences encouraging visitors to consider things like “what… if you were as tall as a Giraffe?

It was decided that the most effective way to assess the influence of these relatively simple and low-key interventions was to create an observation route around the zoo that incorporated each of their locations. Once done, we walked the route repeatedly, wandering along with the general ebb and flow of guests across each day of the week and all times of the day. We felt this approach captured the real experience of guests much more accurately than timed, scheduled observations (that could potentially have captured nothing as much as they might capture something).

Staff at the zoo had also identified other subtle features around the zoo that, whilst not intended for play, were being played with by children, for example, puddles and low rope fences. Children, particularly when together, will find ways of playing with the most mundane of things they come across, for example, three very young children were observed huddled together and giggling on a manhole cover. There is, therefore, an argument, as identified by the zoo’s guest experience team managers, for just allowing children to play with more stuff and thinking twice before preventing them. However, it is also fair to say that some environmental features invite more play than others and that when providing for play adults should pay particular attention to the types of installation, intentional or not, that facilitate the most playing. This was a key focus for our audit and observations around the zoo and of particular interest in terms of the play paths.

Our observations identified significant differences in the purpose and nature of the play paths. Some were more obvious than others due to their prominent position, scale or eye-catching colours. For example, it’s difficult to avoid the brightly coloured butterflies in the middle of the path but the tree branch behind the monkey enclosure was easy to miss and as a consequence little interaction was observed with it. In contrast, most children observed walking near the butterflies (especially younger ones and when coming out of the butterfly enclosure) interacted with them and changed their movement, skipping and jumping between them or flapping their arms. One girl after hopping on the butterflies exclaimed: “I’m going to be a butterfly when I’m older”. However, whilst the ‘steppingstone’ like arrangement of the butterflies stimulated playful engagement, within only a few movements children were through them. So, in this case, more butterflies were needed over a greater expanse of space.

Like the butterflies, the elephant and flamingo footprints, gibbon log ends and fishes were located next to their associated animal enclosure, where people walk in or out or stand to view the animals. Some are accompanied by signs suggesting an activity (“can you balance like a gibbon?”). As identified by one of the focus groups we facilitated with zoo staff, these play paths appear to “make more sense” and have some other function as well as play, for example directing people into exhibits or facilitating some form of learning. Observed interaction with these play paths was mostly limited to young children briefly stepping on them (although a family was seen all standing on one leg near the flamingo footprints). In the context of play, making sense may not be what is needed.

In contrast, the skipping lane and long squiggly line appear more overtly playful and as expected generated the most playful responses. The location and design of these play paths have little to do with neighbouring animals and everything to do with play.

The skipping lane generated fairly regular bouts of skipping, with adults, on seeing the skipping sign on the fence, most often being the ones to cue their children to skip. The result was children and adults skipping together and smiling at the shared moments of fun. It wasn’t uncommon to see adults visiting without children playing along the skipping lane. However, before the sign being installed the skipping lane first appeared as just a straight white line and received little attention from those walking past. It needed the sign to clarify its purpose for play.

In comparison, no such signage was required with the long squiggly line. This play path generated by far the most playful responses, appealing to a wide range of ages with barely a child being able to walk past without following its route. Children, attracted like magnets, broke away from family groups to follow the line, parents were observed following the path with prams, grandparents dutifully fell into line behind grandchildren and full school groups (previously observed being marched past the destination play areas) snaked along its path. At times this resulted in visitors crossing over each other (with subsequent giggling) where the line loops itself and unlike all the other play paths children were observed going back for another go.


The only purpose of that particular path is play, it makes no other sense, it may even be nonsense. To quote one member of staff walking past at the time of observation “weird ain’t it but it works”. However, the reality is that it works because it’s weird. Children and adults alike engage with it because of its novelty and sense of silliness, which (due to its size, shape and colour) is very obvious.

The same can be said about the “what if?” question signs. Some make sense in terms of encouraging people to think about particular animals; “leap like a lemur” promotes consideration of lemurs and the way they move, whilst others are more silly and therefore more playful; “what if a banana could eat a monkey” opens up many more possibilities for nonsensical thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

The various interventions can therefore, be seen to lie on a continuum of playfulness; from those that are overtly playful and clearly provided for play to those that appear less playful, offer less inspiration for play and serve some other function (usually educational or directional).

The zoo should be commended for their innovative and experimental approach to the development of opportunities for playing. Their willingness to adopt a ‘what if’ approach has enabled them to get stuck in and have fun trying things out. As a result, like all good experiments, there are things they have been able to learn from this process. In particular, some of the interventions made in support of play are significantly more successful than others and this comes down to how playful they appear to children and other people. Often it is those that make the least sense that encourage the most playing.

The less playful interventions may still have value in terms of adding to the aesthetics and learning function of the zoo but it is the more playful interventions that are most likely to have a positive impact on people’s experience of visiting the zoo, heightening their sense of enjoyment, motivating children to explore and repeatedly providing for their desire to play.

In this instance the institutional or organisational benefits of play are indirectly gained from supporting the intrinsic value of playing; an approach often referred to as ‘play for play’s sake’. Children are motivated to play because of the pleasure they gain from playing and it is through playing that other benefits emerge. This requires adults to focus on play as the only outcome of their interventions and to pay attention to those interventions that elicit the most playing.

Suggested citation for this publication:

Barclay, M., Tawil, B. (2020). Research and Experimentation at Chester Zoo: Designing for Play. Ludicology, Wales.

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