91. Lessons from a trip to the Zoo with a small kid

Today, I was at the Copenhagen Zoo. It’s a wonderful place, where Marie and I go from time to time. This time, it wasn’t just the two of us, though. We were accompanied by a couple of friends and their kids. One of these kids provided a fascinating case study in experience design thinking, and provided me with some quite interesting insights. He and I also had a lot of fun together at the zoo, which of course isn’t bad at all, either.

Our hero, who shall remain nameless in this text, was quite uninterested in most of the animals. And why shouldn’t he be? They’re quite far away (and for good reason!), they don’t really perform or entertain, and they’re quite non-interactive. Sure, it was fun watching the “Dad Lion” walk around for a moment, but apart from that, he couldn’t care less.

On the other hand, he loves drawing, so when we found a small building where you could sit down and draw, he was sold. He and I spent quite a bit of time there, colouring pre-outlined animals, and happy as clams. One might argue that he could sit down and draw any day, and only see animals today, but such logic is for adults with no perspective.

Here’s my Hephalump styled elephant from today.

We walked past many animals, that drew little interest. We explored a rabbit-inspired labyrinth and that was cool, and we also ate both food and ice cream. But the winning attraction was a child-size excavator in a sandbox. It was quite cool, actually. It was designed so a parent or older child could help someone too young to use it properly, and it had both a huge claw and gleaming metal rods. Interactive AND irresistible.

Next to the wonderful excavator was a big, wooden kangaroo. It was almost life-sized, and was designed so that kids could climb through its side and out through the pouch, where they could stand and pretend to be kangaroo babies. The kangaroo even had a bent neck, so it looked down on them and seemed to watch over the pouch’s inhabitants. Not only did this interest our hero no end, he also made contact with other kids, who were fascinated by the wooden visitor from Down Under. It didn’t take them long to bond, and while watching baboons is also fun, it’s not a connection machine like this.

The rabbit-inspired labyrinth I mentioned earlier was quite cool. It was constructed in a way, so that the adults could easily see over the walls, while the children couldn’t, making it very easy for kids to get lost, but quite challenging for accompanying adults to do the same. At one place in the labyrinth, there’s a dead end, and a painted hunter figure on the wall. This is meant to show the kids/rabbits, that they must turn back. However, our hero didn’t really get this, so when he overheard another adult explaining to a child (presumably his own) that there was a hunter, our hero understood it as the adult in question being the hunter. The rest of our stay in the maze was spent trying to find “the hunter” (this random dad), and either dodge him or sneak up on him. It was fun, but I’m sure the young man in question had no idea that he was making himself into a rabbit villain that way.

Innocent looking rabbits become deadly burning enemies in the midday sun

Pictured above is a spring-seat-play-thing-whatever-you-call-it. It’s fun, simple and pretty intuitive. It is also, in the weather we had today, quite hot to the touch. In fact, it was so hot, that when our hero went over to play with it, he scorched himself a little (not seriously enough to start crying, that came later on a slide), but enough so that he flinched and left it. In general, I found it a bit fascinating that so many parts on the playground were unprotected metal. Not because it’s dangerous as such to get a little sizzle, but because it is detrimental to play.

I’m no stranger to kids, and can confidently say that I’m good with them. One of my secrets is to try to only do things with kids that I myself find interesting. This isn’t always possible, of course, but I’ve found that when I am around kids and put on my experience design analysis hat, even the most boring activities become fascinating research opportunities. There’s a limit to this, of course, but for me, it really does the trick.

I love our zoo. It houses amazing animals, has a very professional and educational profile, and seems well-run. It’s also clear from just one day of watching kids (not just our hero, but many others as well), that there’s a huge discrepancy in how the zoo experience is designed and how it is in reality. I count Copenhagen Zoo as one of the more progressive ones I’ve been too, but even here, there’s a lot that could be improved (cheaply). As one random parent exclaimed as a we walked past a certain place:

“It’s funny how that thing is still the most popular here. It’s been there since I was a kid!”

What was he talking about? A piece of track with a wall at the end, where you can run against animals (represented by coloured lights showing how fast the competition is). It’s been there since I was a kid, and though it’s a lovely way of illustrating the speed of different creatures, there’s not a living animal in sight and it still manages to entertain after all these years.

Why? Because it’s (semi)interactive, of course.

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Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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