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Brookfield Zoo: Happy Animals. Happy People

The design of this central playground at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Ill. includes a pre-school age unit, an elementary school unit, talk tubes and a small "Volcano Climber," with a brick path along the north side. Since the site already had an asphalt pad and some drainage infrastructure, the designers created a plan to accommodate both. Therefore, the focus of the project could remain on the equipment, surfacing and installation.

In the spring of 2005, Robert Collins, landscape architect from Recreation Concepts, Inc., met with Gail Gorski, manager of plant and facilities at the Brookfield Zoo, and Andy Murashige with the Chicago Zoological Society's design department to discuss their plans for a new playground. The area where the new playground was proposed was a large asphalt plaza adjacent to an old play area, a small restaurant/ restroom building and surrounded by green ash and silver maple shade trees.

The goal was to create an exciting, durable and interactive play environment that would look fully integrated into the area once completed.

The finished playground has exceeded expectations and has become one of the most popular destinations in the Brookfield Zoo. It is constantly mobbed by children throughout the day, and truly looks as if it has been a part of the zoo's landscape for many years.

Tile was the selection for the safety surfacing of the play area. To lower overall maintenance tile was preferred over poured-in-place surfacing so that any high wear areas could be repaired easily simply replacing a tile or two instead of having to install new poured-in-place surfacing in patches.

Scope of Work

Robert Collins worked with the Chicago Zoological Society staff on the playground equipment design, as well as the site layout, a new brick path along the north side of the playground and the safety surface tile design. Custom play panels and signage were also added to pull the whole project together. Finally, the landscape architect coordinated with a local installer to provide full installation services.

The sign at the Brookfield Zoo Main Playground reads, "Happy Animals, Happy People," and the children who visit the Brookfield Zoo, truly are happy as a result of the design created by Robert Collins, landscape architect from Recreation Concepts, Inc. and the staff from the Chicago Zoological Society.

Getting Started

Chicago Zoological Society had recently come under new management and wanted to create a more family and child friendly atmosphere at Brookfield Zoo. To this end, this large playground in its very central location was critical.

The initial design program included an ages 5-12 modular unit, an ages 2-5 modular unit and some freestanding climbing equipment. Due to the large amount of space and limited use potential, swings would not be included in the design. In addition, the zoo did not want to incorporate overhead ladders because of previous injury accidents involving these types of play events. Of course, special attention to assure compliance to ADA standards, as well as the ASTM and CPSC standards, was also part of the design.

This deck's main feature is a double WilderSlide, which has two slides accessed from one deck opening, allowing users to race each other down from the eight-foot height. It also includes a working telescope panel, which looks out over a large mountain exhibit at the zoo.

The site already had the asphalt pad, as well as some drainage infrastructure. This allowed the focus of the design and resources to go almost exclusively to the play equipment, surfacing and installation. However, to beautify the site, the possibility of adding a brick walkway around one side of the playground to facilitate foot traffic around the play area to the restaurant and outdoor seating areas was discussed.

At the pentagonal deck, a suspension bridge leads to a square, eight-foot deck. This deck features a single "WilderSlide" in a spiral formation to race down to the ground level, as well as another telescope to look into the bird area.

Design Development

In the early stages of the design process, multiple design concepts that focused on exciting play, accessibility and durability were created. When the team met again, one of the concepts stood out to zoo staff. His design included both the elementary and pre-school play units in the central play area on the asphalt pad, with a brick walkway along the north side of the playground. In addition, the design included a small ramped unit in another pod and another elementary modular unit that focused on older users, with eight-foot high decks and big, fast slides. The design was reviewed along with the estimated budget numbers and the team agreed that due to budget constraints, the central play area would be the focus of the project.

Underneath the decks on the play structure, at ground level, there is an activity panel to encourage ground level fantasy play. On another side of the playground, a vertical wall climber allows users to access the eight-foot deck directly, which helps accomplish the design goal of increased accessibility.

The Playground Design Concept

The focal point of this play area is the ages 5-12 modular unit. This structure was designed to create a variety of play experiences, as well as a variety of routes for the users to take throughout the unit. The use that this playground would have to accommodate would be much greater than a typical neighborhood park and in many cases even more than a school playground. The accessible entrance to the structure is a transfer station leading to a single three-foot high deck. From this deck, the user can access a small curved slide that creates a simple accessible "do-loop" that allows users with disabilities access to a sliding experience directly adjacent to the transfer access. This three-foot deck also accesses a small tree climber. The tree climber can be used to access the deck directly and allows for quick access/egress from the unit.

Talk Tubes emerge from the tile surfacing and arc down to allow the users to yell into or listen to them. They are connected under ground by a PVC tube so that despite being nearly 50 feet apart, users can communicate directly through them. They are a common element that encourages cooperative play at ground level for all users.

From this three-foot deck, a step link rises up to a five-foot high deck. This first five-foot deck allows a ground level accessible panel to be located underneath it. The ADA Gizmo Panel is a half panel that allows a user in a wheelchair to pull up directly to it and manipulate the "gizmos" in the panel. On this gizmo panel an echo chamber, which echoes back what the user yells into it, an answer wheel, which the user spins to generate various answers and a maze wheel, with a maze and a small metal ball, which the user turns to move the ball through the maze. Above this, at the deck level, is a GameTime Accessibility Panel, which has Braille, numbers and sign language on the inner deck side, but is open on the outer side, allowed designer Andy Murashige to create some custom panel graphics to incorporate the zoo's image, logo and theme into the playground design. There are three of these panels incorporated into the total playground design. They have captions like "Happy Animals, Happy People," with a picture of a child cleverly combined with a bear. This five-foot deck also has a rung ladder for direct access/egress. Then, a small arch bridge leads to another five-foot high deck. This deck led to a GameTime MegaRock Climber. This climber is the first realistic looking rock climber in the playground industry. It spans out from the deck to a large footprint to allow many users to scale up the "rock" at the same time. The MegaRock also has a fossil relief on the underside to enhance ground level play. Underneath this deck is a single seat at ground level. This deck also has one of the accessibility panels on another corner.

A "Volcano Climber" event is a stand alone round climber using rock climber-style handholds to allow the users to climb up to the top and onto a grate in the center. The event can accommodate many users at one time, playing games like king of the hill. It is also compliant for both ages 2-5 and 5-12.

From here, a step link leads from the five-foot deck up to an eight-foot high treescape deck. This deck is a pentagonal shaped deck with a central climber and curved posts that mimic the look of a tree trunk. Topping this deck is a canopy roof, with a series of concentric circles with laser cut leaf patterns to reflect the trees surrounding the play area. Another of the accessibility panels with a custom graphic is on this deck. On another side, a rockslide spirals down to the ground from the eight-foot height. Then, in one direction the user can run along a 90-degree funnel bridge to a square eight-foot tall deck. The Vert Wall employs rock climber type handholds set in strategic locations to allow the user to climb up or down the flat wall. Below this at ground level are contoured seat panel and a single gizmo panel. Finally, a large Trunk Climber with a series of rungs spreading out to ground level allows direct access/egress.

In the overall design, the elementary unit allows for a verity of access and aggress points to allow for free-flowing use and minimize congestion. This is imperative due to the very heavy use this unit will see. An example of this is how each deck contains some type of climber for direct access/egress, as well as a slide for quick exits on the taller decks.

From a split deck, over a bridge, the user accesses a three-foot pentagonal deck. This deck features a climber, which has a series of flat panels set in a clover formation. A "Rumble & Roll Slide" with a double bed way allows for users to race to ground level side by side.

Pre-school Age (ages 2-5) Modular Unit

The complement to the Elementary Unit is the Pre-School Unit. The Leaning Wall is a flat plastic panel with holes in it to allow the user to climb up or down to the deck. The little foot slide's proximity to the transfer station creates a "do-loop" similar to the one in the Elementary Unit. A single seat is at ground level on this deck as well. An Endangered Species Panel and another customized accessibility panels round out this deck's activities.

The colors for the play equipment needed to reflect a natural setting, but also bring in some brighter colors as part of the new family friendly theme that the Chicago Zoological Society is implementing at Brookfield Zoo. A color scheme with blue slides and plastics, with a green rockslide, green decks, red metal accents, butterscotch metal posts and green treescape roofs was selected.

Surfacing & Pathway

During the design development, we determined that a brick pathway would be incorporated along one side of the play area to allow pedestrian access around the play area. Robert Collins worked with zoo staff to design and specify a brick path along the north side of the play area with a color mix to complement the red coloring in the play equipment scheme. The brick path skirts the north side of the play area, varying in width from a minimum of five feet to flaring out on each end to about eight feet wide.

It was desirable to try to create an interesting layout for the tiles. The landscape architect worked with Andy and Gail and once again on a pattern of red, green and blue tiles that would reflect the color scheme of the equipment. This layout starts with the play area separated into three segments, and they come together and "bleed" into each other at the center of the play area, with squares of each of the three colors interspersing into each other. It is a simple concept, but it creates a very nice look.

A Rainforest Canopy Roof, with laser cut leaf panels set into the metal roof panels, top off the play structure, surrounded by green ash and silver maple trees. The play structure is the first of a series of improvements to the Brookfield Zoo, which include additional play structures, a carousel and a splash pad area.


Once the design was finalized, the next step was bringing it to reality. Chicago Zoological Society is a non-profit institution, so they are not tied to all the bid rules that government agencies must follow. The zoo ordered the equipment and Recreation Concepts, Inc. worked with Elanar Construction, a GameTime certified contractor, to install the equipment, the brick path and the tile surfacing.

The Brookfield Zoo's main playground is broken up into sections, based on the age of the users. The pre-school modular unit starts with a split three-foot/two-foot, six-inch deck with Transfer Access up to the three-foot deck. The deck steps down to two-feet, six inches to a small slide and a "Leaning Wall Climber."

The Brookfield Zoo Main Playground Opens

Upon completion in the summer of 2005, the playground opened to rave reviews. It has been in nearly constant use since then and is a great success. In fact, it was so successful after it opened; a donor stepped forward to cover the cost of the playground. It was one of the first child and family friendly implementations of the Chicago Zoological Society's new management at Brookfield Zoo. It was also the first of a series of improvements that now includes a carousel, another smaller playground and a splash pad area.

Recreation Concepts, Inc.

In October of 2006, Cunningham Associates, based in North Carolina, purchased Recreation Concepts, Inc. The company provides park and playground equipment and design for both small and large-scale park and playground projects.

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December 8, 2019, 8:11 am PDT

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