4. Brookfield Zoo, IL
SIZE: 5,938 animals on 216 acres
Jim Schulz/Brookfield Zoo
- Houses a 2,000-seat Dolphinarium, where children from the audience are selected to participate in dolphin shows
- Showcases 20 species of butterflies as part of a screened-in, landscaped exhibit that features a winding walkway where kids can get eyeball-to-antenna with them
- Was the first zoo to exhibit animals in a barless setting, to display pandas in North America, and to breed black rhinoceroses
- Offers a quiet room to feed an infant and impressive restroom facilities that include two large family bathrooms and 26 changing tables -- 11 of which are located in the men's rooms
Several years ago, the Brookfield Zoo, 14 miles from Chicago, decided to add to the area devoted exclusively to children. The first step: gather the most imaginative people in the children's education and entertainment industries. "We held a brainstorming session with writers and producers from kids' favorite TV shows, award-winning teachers, and the nation's leading playground architects," says Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., the zoo's CEO.
But the most fun ideas came in phase two when the zoo recruited thirteen 5- to 10-year-olds to meet on the third Saturday of every month for a year. During the two-hour sessions, the kids gave their opinions through drawings, sculptures, discussions, journals, games, and other activities. They also used their artistic skills to create murals and designs that are on permanent display.
The result: The Hamill Family Play Zoo opened in 2001. In this 2-acre, 15-setting area, which is separate from the children's zoo, kids can touch animals, build habitats, paint murals, perform make-believe medical procedures at the animal hospital, plant gardens, discover insects, dress up in animal costumes, and make mud pies with their parents.
And there's more: "We teach children how to plant and grow a banana tree, then we lead a procession of kids to the Tropic World facility where zookeepers feed the gorillas bananas," says Dr. Strahl. "We want to stimulate children to think outside the walls of a classroom."
Contact information: 708-485-0263; www.brookfieldzoo.org