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From a Child's Perspective

Viewing Wildlife at Kronkosky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot

By Christopher L. Overdorf, ASLA and Keith J. Bates




Animal species were needed that were either colorful, active, were low to the ground, or exhibited behavior that was conducive to mimicry. The primary species selected for the project included: White-Nosed Coatimundi, Squirrel Monkey, Linne's Two-toed Sloth, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Aldabra Tortoises, and Chilean Flamingoes. Other species such as goats, chickens, and other handle-able animals and different fish species were also selected.

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When was the last time you took your family to a zoo and your kids were told by the staff to dig, climb, get wet, get dirty and explore alongside zoo animals? The San Antonio Zoo has created just that. Called the Kronkosky Tiny Tot Nature Spot (KTTNS), the new exhibit was designed so children can go exploring, play in a variety of natural habitats, and grow with nature.

The new exhibit was designed primarily for 0-5 year-olds as an early childhood development center for the greater San Antonio region. In 1999, the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation (KCF), a non-profit philanthropic organization in Texas, gathered together persons experienced in teenage pregnancy, the arts, child abuse, education, social work, and others with local charitable interests to discuss the core problems related to local community issues.

One of the issues that raised concern amongst the panel was the lack of nurturing early childhood development (ECD) programs. What followed was an initiative called "Precious Minds, Early Connections" that would look at ways of developing ECD-based programs in the San Antonio Region.






Parents are encouraged to get wet and a little dirty along with their kids when they visit Kronkosky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot. In the "Riverbank" area of the park, children can wade in the water, play in the beach area, crawl on a tortoise shell, get face-to-face with Aldabran tortoises, dig for faux tortoise eggs, or make a crab house.







The Need of Early Childhood Development

Early childhood development (ECD) is an umbrella term that applies to the processes by which children from birth to nine years grow and thrive, physically, mentally, emotionally, morally and socially. Early childhood is the most rapid period of development in a human's life. During a child's first five years of life, children learn and develop faster than at any other time. Up to 90 percent of a child's brain will develop between birth and the age of 3. During this time, the brain is still wiring itself mainly due to the rapid production and formation of connections between brain cells, known as synapses. These connections are created and strengthened when a child is introduced to a wide variety of multi-sensory experiences. The more experiences children are given, the more their brains will be stimulated and the more "wired" their brain becomes.






Kronkosky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot occupies 2-acres of the San Antonio Zoo. It was designed to allow children to play and interact with nature, learn to process information, develop knowledge and reasoning and create strong bonds that lead to empathy for the natural world. Through early immersion, the project encourages children to develop an understanding of and an appreciation for nature.

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The ECD Project at the Zoo

As in most cities, zoos tend to be the number one rated place for families to take their kids and this was also the case in San Antonio. In a local survey, over half of the families that visited the zoo brought at least one child under the age of five.

The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation (KCF) saw the potential to do something that had never be done before - to create an ECD center at a place where kids and families go to the most. The KCF generously contributed a $5 million grant to the zoo to develop the center. After a programming phase accomplished by the zoo and the firm of Moore Iacofano Goltsman (MIG), the firm of Jones & Jones, widely recognized as the preeminent zoological design firm in the world, was hired to develop the design.

"Typically, zoos are not generally designed or constructed with consideration to how children actually view the zoo environment."

One of the first steps in the development of the design was to assemble the right team of professionals. In that effort, Jones & Jones assembled a review committee of the best early childhood, education specialists that would give the core team the best expertise available. Called the "Blue Ribbon Committee", the professionals included; Dr. Joe Frost, known all over the world for over 30 years of work on early childhood and children's play environments, a consultant for playgrounds worldwide and a past president of the Association for Childhood Education International; Ray Mendez, who runs "Work as Play" - an interpretive design consulting firm who works primarily for zoological and museum institutions; Angie Herdman, an early childhood specialist who now works for the Mayor's Office for Children and Youth in Nashville, Tenn.; and Dr. Laura Beizer, a psychologist specializing in early childhood development.






Children have their own entrance to the park over a stream where they cross on large lily-pad themed stepping stones. Once entering there is a chance for children to decide where they want to go next - whether it is to follow the noise of the cackling flamingoes, enter into the "Underwater Adventure" or see the animals in the "My Backyard" area.


Play as the Primary Goal of the Project

The results of the first workshops with the Blue Ribbon Committee identified that one of the primary ways in which children experience and interact with their surroundings is through play. Play is the one of the primary mechanisms that positively affects and encourages brain development. During the cognitive development period of early childhood, young children, especially infants, are active learners because they are learning through the use of their senses and their physical abilities. They can begin to understand ideas through repetition of activities such as object permanence, pretend play, babbling, mimicking or singing. Play also is one of the primary mechanisms that lead to the progression of a child's motor development abilities.

The Blue Ribbon Committee also identified several other advantages of play for children during early childhood that have lasting effects. Through play children express themselves: they explore, rehearse, practice-a natural way to learn, assimilate knowledge and begin to develop the "tools" that allow them to make sense of the adult world. Play can allow children to tell them who they are as a constructor of their own life history, allows them to resolve problems, develop and explore and understand personal feelings. Play is also the primary mechanism that supports communicative and social developments through a child's interaction with play partners.

At the same time, parents need to be able to ensure a child's safety while giving them the opportunity for exploration and discovery. Joe Frost, a professor of education and child development specialist, adds that "What children need is simple: open space, challenge, and the tools with which to materialize their own ideas." Thus, it was determined that it was important to allow children enough freedom to interact with a safe, natural environment in order to grasp a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.






At the "Explore Your Underground" area, children can explore the underground world of prairie dogs by crawling into the Prairie Dog exhibit or an oversized room of underground animals.


Thinking Like Kids

With this project though, the major issues and details that the design needed to respond to was children between the ages of 1 month and 5 years. One of the challenges faced was the difficulty in keeping the project design team, contractor, and client in the right frame of mind and perspective needed to build for an age group that can't be held responsible for their own actions.

Keeping safety as our top priority was critical but safety standards for children this young are sometimes not well developed. We modified some child standards for older age groups, used cut outs for child heights, and crawled on our hands and knees. With our major audience standing (or laying) between 24 and 45 inches, we needed to view the project from a different perspective.






Most zoos are not designed or constructed with consideration as to how kids view the zoo environment. On their level, they rarely get to see the animals or natural elements. Designers from Jones and Jones actually crawled on their hands and knees in order to view the project from a child's perspective.


Along with this, considerations had to be taken for older siblings and parents that would join them on their adventure through the project. All the while, we had to remind the design team that the project site is a project within a zoo. Typically zoos are not generally designed or constructed with consideration to how children actually view the zoo environment. For example, a two-year-old child in a stroller will spend most of their time at the zoo looking at stone walls or fences. They can rarely actually see the animals or natural elements; additionally, it is hard for these young children to comprehend the constant new visual images that are surrounding them.

This added other design restrictions and requirements along with the ethical questions about how children see the animals and learn about their lives, their living environments, and what similarities they have to the children. We added features to make this a sustainable project and adjusted design and construction standards to make this project work best for the children.

Species selection was another crucial step in the design process. While kids tend to have favorite animals based on their favorite stories, it was quickly decided that many of the larger "favorite" animals would not work given the spatial constraints of the projects nor the developmental issues that the project needed to support. Lions and tigers, although gracious beautiful animals, tend to lie around for the better part of the day and will not hold a 0-5 year-olds attention for too long. Species were needed that were either colorful, active, were low to the ground, or exhibited behavior that was conducive to mimicry. The primary species selected for the project included: White-Nosed Coatimundi, Squirrel Monkey, Linne's Two-toed Sloth, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Aldabra Tortoises, and Chilean Flamingoes. Other species such as goats, chickens, and other handle-able animals and different fish species were also selected.






The "My Backyard" area contains several small pens and holding areas for a few touchable animals like rabbits and chickens. In this area, children can brush and care for goats, plant and transplant seeds, meet a caterpillar, compost, dig up carrots to feed to guinea pigs, and uncover worms.









The Design

The project occupies close to 2-acres of the San Antonio Zoo and was designed to allow children to play and interact with nature, learn to process information, develop knowledge and reasoning and create strong bonds that lead to empathy for the natural world. Through early immersion with nature, the project encourages children to develop an understanding of and an appreciation for nature.

Kronkosky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot is actually 19 separate play environments organized into seven seamless zones: the Discovery House, the Underwater Adventure, My Backyard, the Coati/Sloth Hang and Dig, the Campground, the Riverbank and Pier and Pond. All of the zones include innovative interactive exhibits that include a wide variety of plants and animals providing child appropriate natural experiences and creative materials to facilitate imaginative scenarios centered on the lives of animals. The entire project is staffed by numerous "play leaders," zoo or volunteer staff with formal knowledge of how children play and who help facilitate and stimulate the connections children have with nature.

At the entrance to the site, children have their own entrance over a stream where they cross on large lily-pad themed stepping stones. Upon entering there is a chance for children to decide where they want to go to next - whether it is to follow the noise of the cackling flamingoes, enter into the Underwater Adventure or go see the animals in the My Backyard area.

The Underwater Adventure area is a walk-through fake-limestone aquarium housing fishes of different colors and sizes. This exhibit area was designed so that kids could get "face-to-fin" with the fishes and let their eyes adjust to light penetrating through the water and illuminating the fish.

Located in the center of the Nature Spot is the Discovery House, an indoor exhibit that features three rooms connected to the outside animal exhibits by wall-sized windows. In the Explore Your Underground room, children can explore the underground world of prairie dogs and earthworms including crawling into the Prairie Dog exhibit or exploring an oversized room of underground critters. In the Explore Your Pond room, children can play in an indoor pond, look at the turtles in the exterior pond that looks like it is part of the interior of the building or enter a child-sized aquarium. The Discovery House also contains an Explore Your Zoo room full of props to dress-up and become zookeepers, veterinarians and zoo directors. Children can even build enclosures for animals with blocks and care for the animals.

"Play is the one of the primary mechanisms that positively affects and encourages brain development."

The Discovery House was built of autoclaved aerated concrete and includes 4,000 square feet if exhibit rooms and office space. The building also features a central courtyard for impromptu educational programming that also assists with daylighting and cooling with natural ventilation.

The My Backyard area contains several small pens and holding areas for a few touchable animals like rabbits and chickens. In this area, children can even brush and care for goats, plant a seed, meet a caterpillar, transplant seedlings, compost, dig up carrots to feed to guinea pigs, and uncover worms.

At the Coati/Sloth Hang and Dig area, children can crawl through a log with a coatimundi, mimic the foraging and digging behavior of the species, or hunt for fake grubs in logs. They can climb and hang like a monkey or climb onto an oversized sloth.

In the Pier and Pond area, kids can play in a boat, pretend to fish, explore pond life, and create fish prints.

In the Campground area children can go camping, play in a stream, listen to stories around a campfire, explore tents, and uncover animal tracks.

In the Riverbank area, children can wade in the water, play in the large sandy beach, crawl through or on a tortoise shell, get face-to-face with the Aldabran Tortoises, dig for pretend tortoise eggs hidden in the sand by playleaders, or make a crab house.

Through early immersion into ever-changing nature experiences that stimulate senses and enable discovery, children develop knowledge and reasoning while creating strong bonds that lead to a lasting appreciation for the natural world. Kronkosky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot encourages families with young children to experience nature together by actively participating in a wide variety of habitats and environments designed to enable free play and discovery. During each and every visit, children will be immersed in nature experiences that encourage the senses, as well as, the sense of discovery thus enhancing the child's emotional, physical, and social development. The project opened in October of 2004 and will become the first LEED-certified building in San Antonio.

About the Authors

Christopher L. Overdorf, ASLA (e-mail: coverdorf@jonesandjones.com) is a Principal at Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects Ltd. and Keith J. Bates (e-mail: kbates@jonesandjones.com) is an Associate with Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects Ltd.


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December 7, 2019, 3:46 am PDT

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