“Decades of research has shown that play is crucial to physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development at all ages. This is especially true of the purest form of play: the unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, independent kind, where children initiate their own games and even invent their own rules.”

– Can We Play? by David Elkind

Most of us think of play as respite or indulgence, but having fun is no trivial pursuit. In fact, it’s crucial to our mental health and happiness.

The project digs deep into background research on ‘playfulness’, including innate universal patterns and types of play. It challenges our basic notions of physical play with a much wider vision of creative socio-dramatic play and how this helps define us as social beings. Informed by psychological research the project has looked to expand the variety and type of play offer that was previously in the zoo and encourages higher forms of imaginary and exploratory social play within a series of exciting and flexible spaces.

Varied environments and opportunities (coupled with supporting peers or adults) help children navigate their own experience of life through self-directed play. Playing is an inter-relational activity in which players (children and their peers, children and adults, even adults and other adults) co-create non-serious narrative episodes that transcend the parameters of real everyday realities of life through imagination, fantasy and elements of pretence.

There are a number of key themes and objectives that run through the scheme, including:- the use of Natural materials and a need to create a deeper connection with nature, the creation of welcoming and innovative people niches – for kids, teenagers, adults, grandparents and families and a flexible landscape where children can manipulate their environment to suit their imagination.

Many traditional playgrounds involve fixed pieces of equipment – based around de-risked solo physical play [swinging, jumping, climbing], which is only a very limited area of ‘playfulness’. Madagascar play creates a myriad of different potential play experiences that can be led, adapted and transformed by children themselves. This includes, ‘innate universal patterns of play’ – Inc. gathering, enveloping, de-constructing and connecting. Exploratory play and gathering information [tasting, smelling, and feeling] is a stepping stone to role play and imaginary play and ultimately dynamic co-operative play and exploring different ways we as individuals can fit in to the world. We need ‘open-ended’ play places with some degree of controlled risk so we can test ourselves and push on our own boundaries and take these lessons learned into real life experiences.

The Madagascan Explorer’s base camp is at the heart of the vision. A natural place for open creative play as well as staff led events, workshops and shows –with tactile and sensory insights in to the fascinating world of Madagascar. The explorer’s shelter and its immediate surroundings are an Aladdin’s cave of little objects, treasures and delights – ready to be discovered, touched, lined-up, gathered and wrapped in soft materials.

The Pavilion

Inspired by the terraced rice fields of Madagascar, a new informal amphitheater is created around the explorer’s base camp pavilion. Created from locally sourced Douglas Fir and Red Cedar the structure was constructed using traditional techniques usually found on English barns such as tenon and mortise joints, wooden shingles and dowels to create a uniquely Madagascan themed structure (constructed by Handspring Design).

Around this wraps the dry river bed with pumps, dams and water-screws that can be adapted and controlled by visitors. Co-operative, interactive and persistence play is required to pump the water without opening the dams to fill up the dry river bed, also creating an educational link to the importance of water in Madagascar in times of drought and flood.

The Baobab

A more active place to climb, swing and jump among the Baobab trees, built around standard climbing structures and connected by rope bridges. The iconic Baobab features standing at over 9m tall provides a strong vertical reference point for the area and a backdrop to the other Madagascan ‘playful’ zones. Opportunities are created to scramble, balance and clamber over natural log circuits.


Woven willow walls, nests and dens intertwine with the sculptural ground forms to create a fascinating three-dimensional world for families to explore, rest in and have lunch or a drink. A quieter area near the existing lion enclosure is transformed by a series of sinuous low landforms that wrap around bespoke ‘picnic nests’ of varying sizes and detail. Natural native drifts of low grasses, wildflowers and perennials provide interest and enclosure where needed and ideal habitats for butterflies and insects to flourish.

BCA Landscape – landscape architects – Andy Thomson, Craig Mitchell, Shivani Gunawardana, James Watts.

Other designers: Handspring Design (Baobob/Pavillion construction/collaboration)

Project location:

Chester Zoo, UK – CH2 1EU

Design year: 2016 – 2017

Year Built: 2017



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