A Place to Learn and Play at the San Diego Zoo
By Christine Huard
With interactive play opportunities designed to help the next generation of explorers better understand their place in the natural world, the San Diego Zoo’s newest exhibit is truly a place where kids can go wild.
Spanning 3.2 acres that feature four distinct habitat zones and the animals that live in those environments, the Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is home to hundreds of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians and thousands (thanks in part to ant and bee colonies) of invertebrates.
With an eye on sparking curiosity and creating lasting memories, designers consulted with child development experts early in the creative process to find ways to encourage empathy for wildlife and make young explorers a part of the shared environment. Paul A. Baribault, president and chief executive officer of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said he hopes the new exhibit serves as a launch pad that gives budding conservationists a glimpse of life from the animal’s point of view.
“It’s a fun, accessible and meaningful way to discover how we’re all connected and that the health of the smallest members of the wildlife community are inextricably linked to our own human health,” he said.
The new exhibit has been open to the public just since March. Built on the site of the former Children’s Zoo, the $88 million Wildlife Explorers Basecamp offers immersive learning and play experiences that encourage a “monkey see, monkey do” attitude in the best way. Kids climb around a 20-foot-tall “ancient oak tree” alongside squirrel monkeys in the Wild Woods habitat, scale boulders in the Desert Dunes habitat, experience a larger-than-life honeycomb in the Rainforest habitat, and immerse themselves (figuratively) in the aquatic habitats of the Marsh Meadows.
On a hot day, the Wild Woods is likely to be one of the busier spots with its waterfall grotto and splash pad featuring a stream and water jets. It’s also where a suspension bridge, net tunnel and spiral staircase are located, as well as full-body dryers you can step into after getting soaking wet in the water-play area.
Josh Maynard of San Diego was checking out the new exhibit with his daughter, Rose, 10. After touring all the habitats and buildings, the longtime zoo visitors had some new favorites: He enjoyed exploring a watery habitat where they got a close look at dwarf crocodiles, as well as the snakes and lizards housed in the Cool Critters building, and she couldn’t get enough of scrambling across the suspension bridge. She also appreciated the dryer system, saying it would allow kids who didn’t have a bathing suit to enjoy the splash pad and then dry their street clothes.
She also had a least favorite part.
“I did not like the insects,” she said.
But oh, how fascinating the creepy crawlies are! Visitors will find an abundance of multilegged critters — from butterflies and spiders to scorpions and beetles — in the McKinney Family Spineless Marvels building, located in the Rainforest zone. The 10,000-square-foot space also houses a colony of leafcutter ants that takes up two stories and a beehive with an oversize honeycomb where kids can get a feel for what it’s like to be a pollinator.
Over in the Desert Dunes are the fennec fox, prairie dogs and burrowing owls. Play sculptures of the desert rain frog and desert chameleon invite visitors to see the world from their perspective. There are climbing opportunities in a boulder play area and petroglyphs to be discovered inside a cave.
In the Marsh Meadows, strategically designed plantings evoke marshes, swamps and estuaries and attract native birds, butterflies and bees. The two-story Cool Critters building features 7,000 square feet dedicated to herpetology and ichthyology. The outdoor area is home to a multitude of aquatic life that can be explored at eye level. The animals that call the inside spaces home include the Fijian iguana, snakes, turtles, lizards and frogs. Two onsite learning labs will be used for hosting school field trips.
“Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is an engaging, hands-on adventure, seeding hope and optimism, where wildlife and guests can be active and engaged,” said Shawn Dixon, chief operating officer of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/wildlife-explorers-basecamp
Christine Huard is a freelance writer.
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PHOTO CAPTION: At the center of the Wild Woods area at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is a 20-foot “ancient oak tree” where young explorers can cross a suspension bridge, scramble through a net tunnel and climb a spiral staircase. Photo courtesy of Jamie Wells/San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.