CEFPI Victoria Visits the Melbourne Zoo

Published: Sunday 23 March 2014

The Victorian Chapter of CEFPI held their first event for the 2014 program on 26th February with a Tour of The Growing Wild Precinct at the Melbourne Zoo.

This Project was a 2013 Victorian Awards Winner in the Landscape and Outdoor Learning Category. The Project Architect, Wayne Stephens from Clarke, Hopkins Clarke introduced his collaborators from the Zoo, Jeavons Landscape Architects, Arterial Design (Interpretive Design) and Contractors, Lloyd Group.

From the discussion it became obvious that the key to the success of this project was an exceptionally successful collaboration between all of these main players. It should be noted that the Zoo as the client included not just Management and the Educators but the various specialist animal managers and keepers, the horticultural group, the maintenance and safety officers and the visitor experience team. The continuing interaction between all of these groups right through until completion was emphasized.

Zoos Victoria is Victoria’s second largest educator outside the classroom. Its objective is to provide innovative wildlife based learning experiences that inspire and facilitate visitors to take conservation actions that make measurable and positive differences. This project was intended to provide a contemporary and iconic visitor-education destination.

The Education Program was developed in conjunction with Early Childhood Specialists and is based on Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework Outcomes: Birth-8years(VEYLDF). It supports the cross curriculum priorities of sustainability and addresses achievements in the domains of Science, Interpersonal Development, English, Humanities and thinking Processes.

What we found on our visit was a learning environment intended to take us on a journey to inspire us to connect, understand and act. Did it work?

As you approach the precinct along a gently winding pathway, past some Meerkat sculptures you drawn immediately to the real thing. What could be more engaging than the opportunity to come up close to the Meerkats all busy just doing “their thing” in their natural environment. These fascinating, lovable creatures can run up to greet you (although they are safely behind their Perspex enclosure) so that you can almost touch them. They are at the young child’s eye level so eye contact is possible. Everyone on our visit wanted to take one home!

Then off past the giant White Ant mound (with lots of tiny creature sculptures to capture you eye) through the dark tunnel out into the light and a climb up to the Meerkats lookout. The Sandpit beckons, so down and into it. What lives here? We can sift the sand into giant bowls and see if we can find something. The pathways have differing surfaces, some with shade, through differing habitat plantings suited to a variety of animals. I cannot resist the giant tortoise out on the grassy mound. Is he asleep? No, one eye opens and he moves just a bit. He is kept safe from me by a specially designed low level fence that makes me think that I could almost touch him. But then there is the opportunity for the little ones to explore what it is a tortoise sees from his position on the ground. Model Tortoise shells are designed for them to get down and look at tortoise world and see what food might be there and so on.

This is just a glimpse of a few of the opportunities this exciting learning space provides for informal as well as formal learning experiences/programs specifically for 3-8 year olds. The built form in this precinct of lovely soft timbers is thoughtfully designed to blend into the environment minimising any barrier between inside and outside. There is plenty sturdy outdoor seating and for inside child sized cushions on a floor of timber and carpet.

The Zoo and the team of designers are to be congratulated on providing a space which allows for young students to become totally immersed through play in landscapes and experience such a variety of environments where animals dwell.

Janet Mattiske

CEFPI Victoria Chapter committee

Photographs provided by Wayne Stephens and Fred Buono