What interactive habitats can teach us


Do you have childhood memories of visiting the zoo? Laughing at the monkeys as they swung from branch to branch, marveling at the height of a giraffe and the size of an elephant? Besides a plaque naming the species and its country of origin, there was little more to learn.

Today’s zoos have undergone a remarkable transformation. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), zoos are instrumental in enhancing the public’s understanding of wildlife and conservation. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums play a vital role in educating more than 180 million visitors—including 51 million students each year—about wild animals, their habitats, their related conservation issues, and the ways in which visitors can contribute to their preservation.

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Built on the site of San Diego’s historic Children’s Zoo, the expansive, new 3.2-acre Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp opened in March 2022. It is part of the AZA-accredited San Diego Zoo and, in the short time it has been welcoming visitors, it has received high acclaim and rave reviews from local families and educators. The state-of-the-art, multi-ecosystem experience is providing guests of all ages exciting new ways to connect with nature, actively play, encounter new species, and develop an empathy for wildlife.

Inside the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, visitors can explore four separate and absorbing habitat zones: Rainforest, Wild Woods, Marsh Meadows, and Desert Dunes. In each of these zones, an intriguing blend of innovation and immersive technology create an interactive environment with opportunities to learn about extraordinary species—ranging from leaf-cutter ants and orb weaver spiders to prairie dogs and sloths. Here, children can learn by doing as they climb, scramble, and jump in the nature play areas. They can use microscopes, interactive tables, and touch-screen games and inhale the air in scented environments. In addition, through a variety of one-of-a-kind experiences with animals, they can connect like never before to the natural world and understand the importance of conserving wildlife.

Interactive learning experiences like the ones offered at Basecamp offer more than entertainment. They strengthen the human connection to wildlife to increase our awareness of conservation and sustainable practices. By forming this bond early, young visitors can become advocates for wild animals and make a difference in the outlook for wildlife and their habitats worldwide.

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Families who visit San Diego Zoo’s Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers 
Basecamp are invited to interact, explore, investigate, climb, and scramble through a variety of exciting exhibits as they learn about wildlife
Families who visit San Diego Zoo’s Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp are invited to interact, explore, investigate, climb, and scramble through a variety of exciting exhibits as they learn about wildlife

According to a report prepared by the AZA Conservation Education Committee, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are unique venues for students to engage in problem-solving and critical thinking, with important opportunities for real-life applications. “Like museums, science centers, and nature centers, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums primarily use teaching that values interest and engagement over specific concepts and skills, leading to motivation and persistence on the part of the learner,” the report states. In addition to promoting the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, zoos and aquariums are important for students with special needs, who often thrive in unique learning environments.

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It’s a great idea for families to visit the zoo together. With phones and other devices tucked away, they can make decisions on what to do and what to see as a group. Older siblings can guide younger children as they explore a habitat: reading signs, pointing to wildlife, and learning about the environment. A day at the zoo encourages a healthy lifestyle and a chance to bond while having fun.

Gone are the days when a trip to the zoo was limited to seeing animals from other parts of the world and mimicking them. Today’s zoos encourage visitors to observe and think seriously about the impact mankind has on wildlife and the future of our planet. They are a platform for discovery, research, conversation, and action. What’s more, they make learning fun.

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We followed Shally Zomorodi (featured in STYLE p.38), and her four children, Arishia, Arshan, Shyla, and Shayden, on a recent visit to Danny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

“My children range in ages from three to twelve and they all had a fantastic time, learning things at every turn,” Shally says. “Usually when we go to places, they want to leave after about an hour. To my surprise, when it was time to go they refused! They were having so much fun and learning about the animals was so exciting for them! We can’t wait to come back.”

Photographer Annalisa Johnson @annaalisaj
Models The Zomorodi Family @shallyzomorodi
Producer & Stylist Amy Davis @the.establishmint
Videographer Blake Arnold @blake1arnold
Photographers Assistant Donny Michel @donnymichel
Hair/Makeup Hollie Berry @hollieberrybeauty
Shally’s Wardrobe Cedros Soles @cedrossoles