Zoomazium connects kids with the outdoors

Zoomazium"This is so much fun!" Jonathan Norris of Preston, age 10, said under his breath as he finished hurtling down a slide hidden inside a replica of an enormous tropical tree.

Woodland Park Zoo's Zoomazium, which opened in May 2006, is packed with fresh and fun ways that kids can learn about the natural world while (not incidentally) indulging their need to climb, crawl and squeeze into small spaces. Activities are geared to the 8-and-under set, although -- as proved by Jonathan -- older children won't exactly turn up their noses at the chance to check things out.

As you approach the building, the small kids with you will make a beeline for the child-sized doors fitted with chunky bronze handles by Oregon artist Laurel Marie Hagner. Get closer: The handles look like logs, complete with basking turtles.

Inside, a roomy space is divided into six "Discovery Zones" for kids to explore. In the Toddler Zone, tots can place sweet felt slugs and ferns on a crawl-through nurse log, or hatch out of a huge, soft egg. An older child, beckoned by the sound of trickling water, can wiggle through a narrow passageway hidden beneath a mountain. The mountain is a climbing structure on top, but it conceals more than one surprise below. In the grassland, a high-tech "watering hole" allows kids to see their reflection displayed alongside that of a savannah creature.

According to Program Manager Frank Hein, one of Zoomazium's primary objectives is to offer children a multi-layered experience. "Every kid who walks in here knows what to do," he says, but what kids see at first glance is definitely not all they get. After blowing off some steam on the giant strangler fig slide, an observant child might notice a camouflaged moth resting on the tree's trunk. Three discreetly positioned touch-screen monitors can help kids find simple information about habitats or animals -- or engage them in a puzzle with a cool reward at the end. Play at Zoomazium can be as simple or complex as a child wants, which suggests that coming here will stay fresh for kids even after many visits.

One of the facility's most intriguing features is the Nature Exchange, located directly to the left of the main entry. It's a quiet corner outfitted with enough top-quality field guides to gladden a naturalist of any age, and drawers and bins of insects, plants, minerals and fossils that children can examine and identify. Kids earn points for their discoveries, which can be exchanged for prizes such as shells or minerals, and opportunities to earn points will be located throughout Zoomazium and on zoo grounds.

This access to high-caliber, beautifully displayed learning tools such as the ones found in the Nature Exchange (and around the entire facility) is evidence of a deep respect for children's needs and abilities, and staff will be on hand to show how kids can exercise that same type of respect when they encounter animals or artifacts in the wild.

The building's interior has a laid-back vibe in spite of the prominent play structures -- no garish colors or jangling music here. "It feels nice for parents," Hein says. "It's not hyperstimulating." Nursing mothers can collapse into comfy green chairs in a corner of their own, close enough to the Toddler Zone to keep an eye on the kids but far enough away for some privacy. A fenced-in outdoor area next to the nursing nook gives smaller kids space for free exploration while keeping them from making a break for it.

And free exploration that leads to learning is what this is all about. Kids who are more tuned into screens than trees will find a place where they can play hard while discovering the natural world in an organic, unforced way. Best of all, it's year-round, so the lessons can continue even during the times of year in which navigating the actual outdoors requires waterproof jackets and knee-high rain boots.

Kris Collingridge is Out & About Editor at ParentMap.

Photo credit: Martina Machakova


  • Zoomazium is located near the zoo's West Entrance at North 55th Street and Phinney Avenue North, Seattle.
  • The zoo opens at 9:30 a.m. daily. Zoomazium opens at 10 a.m. daily.
  • Entry is free with zoo admission, which varies by season. Yearly memberships are available for $45-$135; call the Membership Hotline at 206-615-1024.
  • Zoomazium meets ADA guidelines for accessibility, and many exhibits are accessible.
  • Food and tables for brown-baggers are available in the Rain Forest Cafe, located a short walk from the facility.
  • On-site family restrooms include changing tables.
  • Find out more at www.zoo.org/zoomazium, or call 206-684-4800.

What's going on?

Special activities will be happening all the time at Zoomazium, some scheduled beforehand, others that are seemingly spontaneous and integrated into the experience.

  • Join a story circle or sit near the main stage to watch a video on the large plasma screen, play with blocks or watch as a mountain climber suddenly appears and starts to ascend the mountain.
  • Classes and arts and crafts will be conducted inside the research tent set up next to the grassland area.
  • Zoo overnights will be held in the space.
  • Activity and class offerings will be evolving in the next few months, according to interest. For up-to-date class information, visit the zoo's education page.


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