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A Place to Learn and Play at the San Diego Zoo

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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.

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