UNO researchers examine child development at Henry Doorly Zoo

Photo courtesy Henry Doorly Zoo

Andi Manakdan

Researchers at UNO collaborated with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to conduct a research study at The Bay Family Children’s Adventure Trails Exhibit. The study began in July and will conclude at the end of November.

The education department at the zoo created a children’s adventure trails exhibit in July. The exhibit is full of exciting areas for children of all ages to play. First, visitors enter the space through the adventure trails gateway. Then, they have the option to walk along a variety of paths leading to different stations that were built specifically for exploration. The staff in charge of creating the exhibit incorporated a treehouse hub, where children can freely awaken their imaginations through play. The treehouse is connected to a large slide and bridges on which children can run. There are canopy trails, a wetlands area attached to a river that runs throughout the exhibit, gardens and a budgie aviary. Some animals on sight stationed around the exhibit for a real wildlife experience include monkeys and goats..

Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium staff made sure the exhibit was play based for developmental learning. They asked UNO faculty and staff for support. Researchers Anne Karabon and Amanda Steiner began a process of data collection for the zoo to make sure the exhibit encouraged child development. The researcher’s partnership has focused on supporting the zoo’s evaluation of the area by observing visitors in the space.

“They wanted to craft a space that fostered development and learning. The three areas that they wanted to focus on were cognitive, physical and then social-emotional development all through the art of play,” said Karabon.

Children learn through play, dance and interactions. Researchers wanted to see children play in an informal learning space at young ages. They wanted to see not only how they interact with the space, but also how they interact with each other while learning to enjoy their surroundings. They looked at different stages of play from parallel play, which involves children playing together, to a different form of play, which involves astonishment and wonder, that establishes cognitive development. While observing, researchers saw children fascinated with the way that other children were playing with the equipment.

After one child would get up and leave that area, another would sit where they were sitting and play in the same way, while adding a piece of their own identities to the act, said Karabon. It was almost like following another child’s steps and dancing in the same way while also adding their own moves to the groove.

“Any one of any age can go to the zoo, but it can be difficult for children under the age of 4,” said Karabon.

Researchers met with adult visiting groups, conducted an email survey of the leadership team, did a series of individual interviews and observed in the field. They were able to access preschool family members with children from ages 3-to-4 during educational programs for preschoolers that the zoo hosts. While children were listening to a story told by zoo staff, researchers pulled parents out into the hallway to ask for any feedback about the exhibit wondering what the children had to say about their experiences,” said Karabon.

“We were there two days a week for 14 observations that were three hours long each. We spent so much time there that it almost feels like home,” said Karabon.

Karabon and Steiner are now finished with data collection. They have plans to share the information that they’ve gathered with the American Zoo Association and will also be using their results to further their own work in early childhood education.