How the Dallas Zoo Gets Families into Nature


Splashing in a puddle. Building a snowman. Making a wish on a dandelion. Building a fort in the woods. These are all moments most of us probably remember from childhood.

Unfortunately, memories like these are growing increasingly foreign in today’s children. They are trading authentic experiences for ones seen on a screen, and as a society we are letting them. Luckily, zoos and aquariums are stepping up to help reverse the trend of lost nature experiences.

While zoological parks may not initially be recognized as a traditional “nature” space, research has shown zoo visits promote an increased connection with and care of nature. These facilities act as a gateway to nature for millions of visitors every year.

With the help of a $10,000 grant, the Dallas Zoo is combatting the couch potato syndrome through our new program, WildFUN (Families United in Nature).

The Zoo recently was awarded the “Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium” grant by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and The Walt Disney Company. We were one of 30 zoos and aquariums chosen to receive special funding to get families outside, playing in nature.

With WildFUN, we plan to introduce urban, under-served families to unstructured nature play both on Zoo grounds and also in community parks.

To gear up for this new program, facilitators from the Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo led staff from the Children’s Zoo, the Education Department, and teachers from our program partner, Momentous Institute, in a three day nature play training workshop called NatureStart.

NatureStart was designed as a nature play training program for informal education professionals working with young children and their families at museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers. Participants re-discovered environmentally-friendly ways to encourage children to care about the natural world and their role in it.

The Zoo has made a five year commitment to work with pre-K children and their families at the Momentous Institute in Dallas, a private school where 80 percent of their students come from low-income families.. At the end of the first year the WildFUN participating families will create their own Family Nature Club, which any Momentous family will be able to join. The WildFUN program will include trips to local parks, neighborhood green spaces, and of course, the Zoo.

Equipped with techniques and activities that are designed to encourage exploration and discovery, Dallas Zoo staff are now ready to enhance the visitor experience through nature play. Both in the WildFUN program and in a typical zoo visit while playing at the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo, children will be encouraged to jump, run, dance, and build their way to a play-based nature adventure.