Making sure children are involved in nature is key to ensuring the future of wildlife . . . and that message is being wholeheartedly embraced by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) centres at Slimbridge and Castle Espie, where special immersive play areas encourage young visitors to empathise with nature.
The centre at Slimbridge operates a wetland-themed immersive play area at Toad Hall aimed at pre-reception age children and older, while Castle Espie has indoor soft play in the Brent Play Barn.
Beth Morafon, Senior Consultant with WWT Consulting who designed both facilities, said:
The idea for Toad Hall play came from the success of soft play spaces that we put into the Pond Zone at Slimbridge and pond room at Castle Espie around 2008. From that it was decided to add a play space to the existing Toad Hall amphibian exhibit, in early 2015, with a soft play area being installed at Castle Espie at the same time.
Slimbridge has since seen the addition of a new play space which gives children the chance to dress up, play games and enjoy the space provided.
The idea was to make Toad Hall a celebration of all amphibians. I was thinking about mirroring and mimicry as I wanted the area to help children relate to amphibians, so there’s a vanity suite with a dressing-up area and mirrors, plus frog costumes to help them transform, as transformation is such a big part of the amphibian story.
There’s also a small trampoline where youngsters can jump higher like a frog, and the soft play area is perfect for copying animal behaviour, all of which helps create empathy between children and creatures.
There are exotic frogs in the play area, such as the rockers in the form of red-eyed tree frogs, but our native amphibians are very much part of the story too. I also tried to weave in some cultural elements so there’s a seat with a frog throne, with a frog wearing a crown to tie in to the children’s tale of the Frog Prince.
Also provided is a selection of familiar games in the table-top lounge area, themed around amphibians for children and adults to enjoy.
Games are themed around classics: Newts and Ladders, Connect Frogs, Guess the Amphibian and lots of puzzles . . . and they’re rotated to keep it fresh for people who revisit. It’s all geared to making children and adults aware of amphibians and valuing them.
Toad Hall was designed to enrich the experience for visitors with young children, with a capacity for 30 individuals, providing activities for them to spend around half an hour in the space before moving on to enjoy other areas of the site.
It’s great to see this area buzzing in the quieter times such as school term time, for example - Toad Hall is often busy, especially with its target group. Marketing at Castle Espie reported that peak visitation doubled after the play space was opened, and that gave me a good sense of the impact of the facility.
There are now plans to build on the success of Toad Hall and Castle Espie, with proposals to put wetland themed immersive play spaces into projects for some of WWT Consulting’s international clients.