In 2016 Chester Zoo, as part of a broader campaign to improve children’s experiences of play across the zoo, were preparing to re-develop a large space in the centre of the zoo. Staff at the zoo were conscious that the space designated for development held some existing value for play for children and families but wanted to extend and enhance the affordances within this space without losing that which was already working. Keen to ensure that any developments made were evidence based we were contracted based on the zoo’s previous knowledge of our work researching children’s play and playable space.
Together with zoo staff we decided that any investigation of the designated space (formally known as Fountains Lawn) couldn’t happen in isolation of other provision available across the zoo. Visitors to the zoo are engaging with opportunities across the whole site and as such it is essential that any investigation of a specific site’s current and potential affordances, as well as any associated recommendations, be considered in that context. Our investigation took a mixed methods approach and considered how children, their parents and other adults moved through and made use of the proposed space, the zoo as a whole and other designated ‘play spaces’ across the zoo.
The findings from our investigation recommended a range of issues to be addressed by the design brief, developed by Chester Zoo as part of the tendering for contractors who would be commissioned to design the space. These recommendations included:
- Conserving that which was already good about the space
- Making parenting in the space as easy as possible
- Creating more distinct spaces and places to sit
- Maintaining a variety of spaces that offer different opportunities for play
- Increasing the flexibility of spaces by incorporating natural elements and loose parts
- Using signs, symbols and signifiers to create a sense of playfulness
- Creating ‘defensible’ spaces that balance a sense of security with a perception of privacy
- Introducing playable features along the edges of paths and other spaces
- Providing accessible routes enabling those with limited mobility to have similar experience to those of other children
- Using planting to establish different spaces and create further opportunities for exploration
- Being sensitive to children’s use of the space when supervising and maintaining it
Over the following year Chester Zoo implemented the full re-development of the Fountains Lawn, now called the Madagascar Play Space. They also invested both financial and human resources in activities that included substantial marketing campaigns and play training for zoo staff, as well as significant capital developments of other designated play spaces and a range of playful environmental disturbances across the site. Early in 2018 we were re-commissioned to evaluate the influence of these play interventions across the zoo. To do so we carried out an interpretive evaluation working with zoo staff and visitors (including both children and adults), as well as making detailed spatial audits and naturalistic observations of people’s use of and engagement with space. The research enabled us to explore what was working for who, why and in what ways, thereby establishing existing strengths and opportunities for further development.
Our research report was able to document the influence of these play interventions across zoo staff, different user groups and within the various environments in which they took place. This resulted in the development of two models, the first aimed at enabling the zoo to consider future environmental interventions along a continuum of playfulness and the second, representing the range of factors influencing staff engagement with children and their play. Finally, we were able to make three recommendations for Chester Zoo:
- Develop a play policy and associated procedures for implementation, including a framework to support risk-benefit decisions
- Continue with a professional development programme that supports staff to develop their theoretical knowledge, practical skills & understanding in respect of children’s play
- Develop a strategic approach to spatial planning for play, paying particular attention to the playfulness of interventions.
It was an absolute pleasure to work with an organisation so committed to affecting change and improving opportunities for children’s play and visitor experience for families. It was also gratifying to establish that all the efforts that they made and continue to make are welcomed by both children and adults alike. We were very pleased later in 2018 to be commissioned to work with the team at the zoo to develop their Play and Risk Management Policy.