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Pritzker Family Children's Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago

ArchitectureIsFun, Inc., Sharon Exley, MAAE and Peter Exley, FAIA & Stephen Kelly, Editor

The Woodland Walk meanders past the wolf, bear, otter and beaver habitats (the animals are housed indoors). The children’s zoo is the most heavily planted zone within the Lincoln Park Zoo. It is truly becoming a woodland. Oak savanna, pine-fir-birch, maple-linden and riparian communities are represented in the landscape.
Photos Courtesy of oug Snower Photography
Cost of Wisconsin
Backyard X-Scapes Valmont

The new Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo is the final project of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. The Children’s Zoo is located on a modest two-acre site situated adjacent to the zoo’s west gate.


The landscaping for the Children’s Zoo continues right up to the glass-walled entry building, ivy vines growing up the building as nature would have it. “All three disciplines, architecture, landscape and ‘learning,’ collaborated closely on the project,” explains Sharon Exley, MAAE of ArchitectureIsFun. “A core narrative was created that brings together architecture, landscape architecture and learning in play and habitat. This story was woven into environment and experience.”


The Children’s Zoo presents a North American habitat featuring black bears, gray wolves, river otters and beavers, animals of historical and contemporary significance to visiting children living in the Midwest.

  • Four distinct natural communities of the northern Midwest region are presented.
  • The highly immersive habitats include the oak savanna, pine-fir-birch, maple-linden and riparian community types.
  • Indoor underwater viewing of beavers and otters has been created that is typically associated with wet exhibits in an aquarium.
  • 9,000 square feet with 2,000 square feet public space and 3,600 square feet indoor animal holding space

Three separate firms worked together, bringing the disciplines of architecture, art, landscape architecture and learning together to define this new zoo model. The thoughtful integration of building, site and experience provide the extraordinary “walk in the woods” that is uniquely accessible for visitors of all ages.

In urban settings children have fewer opportunities and connections to the natural world. The Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo exhibit, indoors and out-of-doors, enables children to become aware of how these woods are home to wildlife and plant life.

In addition to the zoo animals, there are interpretive, interactive pylons that explain the various animal habitats to help foster affinities between children and the woodlands. The bear/bee interactive pylon allows the children to look through the viewmaster from a bear’s perspective: pawing the hive and scratching and smelling the honey (smell box).


Walk through the Woods

Rooted in the story of a child’s walk through the woods, the glass-walled building is transparent, celebrating the landscape of learning inside by removing the barriers between inside and outside space and showcasing both with light, color, form and shadow. Nature’s own palette adorns the interior, from canopies of vibrant green leaves to the earthy brown of anthills. This rather long space is made more complete by a woodland gesture, visible as skewed columns and wall panels that mimic the vertical rhythm of overlapping tree trunks. The strong forms inside, layered with dappled light, vibrant color, and shadows become part of the woodland forest where children develop ecological sensibilities and awareness.


The clearing—made of steel (bronzed) twigs and sticks—is a place for reflection, an arena for programs, performances or rest.


Home Also to Living Creatures

The terrariums and aviary are clad in wildly patterned laminates, adapted from scientific photograph of ants, butterfly wings and stick insects, and are perfect for sharpening children’s observational skills.

Viewing windows at each end of the building’s interior create educational experiences inside and outside. Observation encourages visitors in their own explorations: attempting to dam up the mosaic water table using twig and stick-like materials.

The 22 ft. tall shingled Reading Tree roots the children’s zoo in exploration. It opens gently up into a protected nest for nonwalkers and caregivers where they safely play.


The girls are beneath the clearing’s canopy where misters are located to keep visitors cool in summer. The zookeepers use this area to show smaller animals for the children to view at close range.

The Canopy Climber, made of curved poplar leaves and cocooned by steel mesh, encourages children to soar 20 feet in the air and climb the entire length of the zoo interior. Children peer into the terrariums below and find natural balconies from which they can observe storytelling or demonstrations, akin to a “natural” Italian opera house situated within the woods.

The Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo is a public facility. Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo welcomes over three million visitors annually. As “everyone’s zoo,” safety, accessibility, interactivity and durability were critical criteria. Creating an open-ended, multi-generational landscape of learning shifts the paradigm of children’s zoos. The design is inclusive by nature and intent. A wide range of preferences and abilities is accommodated. Reflective spaces exist alongside collaborative ones.

The elegant mosaic water table has a rim that dips purposely to lower heights, enabling smaller visitors and those in wheelchairs to naturally find their spot. There is no directed path; visitors select how, when, and where to move, making each visit powerful.


The dam building area, situated next to the beaver-viewing zone, allows children and parents to build dams, weaving twigs and logs onto the metal frame. The North American beaver’s preferred food is the water-lily, but these oversized furry rodents also eat the bark of birch, poplar and willow trees and often snack on berries.

Within these pragmatic challenges, there was a desire to design an artful, dynamic space to inspire children, caregivers, staff and docents.

The Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo is not childish, but sophisticated and filled with beautiful, functional elements: skewed supporting columns reflect the organic qualities of the woods; mosaics adorn the water tables; storybook illustrations become interpretive signage; microscopic imagery is made into laminates and twig-like metal craft.

Every day children and caregivers at the zoo are inspired by surface, form, material and the built and natural world. The Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo weaves together tradition, craft, community, conservation and comfort in a place where children and the significant adults in their lives are encouraged to create art, architecture, and shelter that contribute to this beautiful home in the woods.

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November 19, 2019, 10:16 pm PDT

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