Usually, talking about the Philadelphia Zoo brings up 1 of 3 reactions:

  1. “We LOVE the Philadelphia Zoo. We have a membership, and we go ALL the time!”
  2. “We NEVER go to the Philadelphia Zoo. It’s always so crowded. Why can’t it be more like the San Diego Zoo?”
  3. “We prefer the Cape May Zoo (insert “Elmwood,” “Brandywine,” etc.). It’s smaller and more manageable. Plus, we don’t have to drive to the city, and it’s free.”

Come on! You’ve heard them all! I’ll be the first one to fess up that our family agrees with the latter two: it does get crowded; it can be a pain to drive to the city; we wish they had an elephant; that they were as extravagantly laid out as the San Diego Zoo, and we do take side trips to other local zoos for a change of scenery. However, we also have a membership to the Philly Zoo, and we do go all of the time. It is our Nation’s 1st Zoo; they have survived numerous phases of limited financial backing, and it still stands as the best and most substantive Zoo available to us in the tri-state area. We have come to know it and grown to love it!

Having said that, I wavered with some trepidation about visiting their new kid’s zoo, the KIDZOOU. I mean, wouldn’t you be just a little nervous if you had to meet your date after s/he has had a facial enhancement? You know that you’d still love them, and believe in the medical advancements made in the field of facial reconstruction, but “what if?” was enduring question in my head: WHAT IF I WERE DISAPPOINTED?

But I had to be brave. Knowing that I had to brace myself to many more years of zoological visitations with my yet toddling and infant kids, I had to hope for the best. I’d been hearing a lot of murmurings about the new kid zoo, but I had to find out for myself.

We had taken a little hiatus over the wintry season, and now with the sun high upon the sky and the birds incessantly chirping about springtime waning with the last drop of April showers, the clock ticking from within coerced me to face my fears (with a little help). I surrendered decision-making to the next most qualified in the car – my 3 year old and infant, “so kids, where would you rather go, the playground with the cool slide or the new kid zoo at the zoo?” My fate was sealed, to the Philly Zoo we went.

We arrived and parked in their spanking new parking garage! It sure made it easy to unload my double stroller in between the shady lanes and full load of Armageddon childcare paraphernalia, which is completely ridiculous, considering all of the amenities available at the Philadelphia Zoo.

I renew my membership and we stride in. Instead of heading straight to the KIDZOOU, which is close to the main entrance, I stall as long as I can at both at the Rare Animals and the Reptiles & Amphibians exhibits, plus lunch and potty break for all. I never thought I’d say this, but “thank goodness for my toddler’s passionate interest in reptiles and amphibians!” It gave me a chance to shake off some of those old, but creeping date nerves!


As we arrived at the entrance of KIDZOOU, the enhancements did not disappoint, in fact, they made the kid zoo appear quite attractive in a much updated, modern 21st Century kind of way. I was awe-stricken by the seamless marriage of the old with the new architecture, including the clean metallic lines sweeping along the expansive pathways.

Remember the old Children’s Zoo? It used to be tucked away at the very bottom of the Philly Zoo? It was kind of dingy and outdated, yet the little ones used to love it, because the ducks and petting zoo made it so approachable to them? Well, on the surface, the new KIDZOOU may appear to have gotten an expensive facelift with a state-of-the-art petting zoo, duck pond, chicken coop, etc.


In fact, they “had me” at the “Wash Your Hands” open air, child height, including soap, stainless steel fountain stations! The Dyson Airblade hand dryers were a hit with the kids in their own right.

You mean I don’t have to whip out my own hand sanitizer and wipes, lest I might risk getting my child and me completely muddied and drenched in the old school sinks with the grungy stepping stools? I was sold!

But shortly after, you start to notice the nuances of change. You pick up a thread and follow it to its source. And soon enough you discover that these changes amount to more than just a face-lift. I was ready to embrace and feel safe in my relationship again!

There are exactly 3 words that describe the new KIDZOOU:


First, the new KIDZOOU is INTERACTIVE in more than just the petting sense of the word. The goats and chickens for instance, are not simply “displayed” from within an artificial “pen.” Their newly designed environments resemble more of a natural space or habitat. The most striking aspect of their “space” for me was the intended allowance of “movement.” For instance, the Staff actually rotates the goats, by “herding” them in and out of this huge, enclosed and shady barn that truly resemble an actual farm barn in its scale. In this case, “movement” allows for respite, which teaches respect for the integrity of the animal. The goats actually pass the children and the children can run along them as they are herded into the barn, which of course is off-premises to the children.


Respecting, to an extent, the animals’ need for movement and respite, while the children interact with them, brings us to the new KIDZOOU’s 2nd quality: COMPASSIONATE. And compassion runs both ways – the children’s need for movement and respite were also provided for. The Philadelphia Zoo finally has something close to a playground, but just a lot cooler and more challenging:


There is a playground for kids and a separate playground just for goats, and the 2 stand side by side. Compassion also calls for respite in the presence of movement. The new KIDZOOU provides for a “quiet space” – a cozy, but secluded little garden with benches right behind the building that houses the new restrooms. It is known that this space was also designed with the needs of Autistic children in mind who might be prone to sensitivity in the presence of noise and crowded surroundings.

The 3rd noteworthy aspect of the new KIDZOOU is EDUCATIONAL. KIDZOOU is a crossroads between a traditional zoo, the expository aspects of a natural history museum and the educational mission of a University – for kids of all ages! Once, I read an article written by a parent residing in a depressionary sector of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. It purported that as ambitious parents in an area ridden with a hunger for educational resources and other socio-economic issues, she would much rather teachers take their children in a field trip to a University, where they would be challenged to set new goals, than to passively watch animals at leisure at a zoo.

In addition, in my limited years of educating in the public school system and parenting, I’ve been privy to many fellow parents of socio-kinesthetic-tactile learners stay away from zoos and natural history museums, because “there just isn’t enough for my children” – relating to hands-on activities that engage them.

Well, hello concerned parents as well as Socio-Kinesthetic-Tactile Learners, come one and come all! Welcome, not only the Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo of the new KIDZOOU, but also to its fraternal other half, the Faris Family Education Center. After you’ve worked through your jiggles at their awesome outside playground, you’ll want to explore and “play” inside the Faris Family Education Center – an old stone barn-like building exploding with educational opportunities!

First of all, there is tons of “always-running-never-walking-must-touch-it” toddler-forgiving space and exhibits inside.


We watched little chicks being hatched inside the gigantic heated egg dome; studied the exceptional qualities of mice/rats; followed an ant colony to its destination; observed live hissing cockroaches and tarantulas (big hit with those of us who appreciate insects), and played with gigantic and huggable ant/caterpillar eggs inside the underground tunnel (one little toddler was rocking and singing to a giant egg – melt my heart!).

Furthermore, here is a question: what do the following 3 exhibits of a living room/dining room; aquatic life, and butterflies/birds have to do with the KIDZOOU’s EDUCATIONAL mission?


The answer lies within the next 3 images:


The KIDZOOU is challenging our kids, as young as toddlers, with Environmental Awareness, and the effect of our actions in the Greenhouse Effect and the cycle of life. I must admit that the particulars of the “greenhouse effect” went right over my precocious 3.5 year old’s head, but she understood the need to save energy/water and to recycle.


My only enduring criticism is that the “for toddlers” red barn inside the Faris Family Education Center just didn’t seem to have been toddler-tested. In my humble opinion, a toddler section should be an area where toddlers can freely crawl and explore under their caretakers’ supervision. However, there was no way the toddlers could safely utilize the horsey ride, for example, without an adult propping and holding them up, and the elevated and cushioned “bed” had no gate or handles, so the toddlers could easily roll off while exploring the images along the top. Let’s just say that for me, it screamed “potential toddler accident zone,” so in the interest of finishing our zoo visit at our own pace (without any boo-boos or scares), we skipped right over the toddler animal barn. Other criticisms that I’ve repeatedly heard from others is the disappointment over no longer being able to feed the goats, but I’m ok with doing what’s best for the animals.

Since our 1st re-encounter, we’ve been back to the Philadelphia Zoo 3 times in a 2-week time span. We spent most of our time at KIDZOOU (and the Reptiles and Amphibians exhibit, of course, I explained this obsession earlier). The traditional outdoors exhibits became just the icing on the cake for us.

Perhaps there is a 4th word that I should add to describe the new KIDZOOU, and that is RELEVANT. Through KIDZOOU, the Philadelphia Zoo is making zoological and ecological awareness RELEVANT to young children today, and most importantly, instilling a sense of involvement and responsibility to the simple enjoyment and delight of a trip to the zoo. Click on this link to walk your child through the KIDZOOU’s Social Story boards: http://kidzoou.org/Accessibility/Preplanning-Tools/Philadelphia-Zoo-Social-Story-KidZooU.aspx. I am looking forward to growing this passionate relationship with the Philly Zoo – now through the eyes of KIDZOOU: “You look hot, Baby!”

By Min Derry