Field Trip: Zoo Education Center & Play Area

Trips to the Oregon Zoo are on heavy rotation at our house, and I’m sure the same is true for many of you. We cheered when Lily the elephant was born, and mourned when Tasul the polar bear died. We can navigate from mountain goats to bears to eagles to monkeys to elephants with our eyes closed.

If you’re like my family, you might be so into your usual zoo routine that you didn’t even realize that a new nature exploration center opened there recently. That’s because it’s located by the tigers — otherwise known as “Meltdown Alley” in our family for its proximity to the exit. But the center is worth the stop, even if it means rearranging your usual zoo routine.


The entire complex, called Discovery Plaza, opened in March 2017 and features a garden, café, nature play area and the Education Center itself, but most of the exhibits are located inside the center. That indoors fun was a very welcome treat on the rainy, rainy December day that we went to visit. It is a gorgeous space, filled with natural light and smooth curves. The building is sustainably designed, using locally sourced building materials, enough solar panels to generate all the electricity it needs, and rain collection systems whose water is used to flush toilets.

Inside, it has the feel of a museum, a good one, with lots of interactive exhibits. The focus of the center is on building a love of the outdoors and conservation in the next generation, all centered around the theme that small things matter. The animals featured are small, but impactful: butterflies, bees, turtles, bugs. They may get overlooked, but they perform important functions from composting to pollination and beyond.

Small kids, too, matter, and can also make a difference in our environment. The Heroes for Wildlife exhibit features a comic-book style presentation of people who have done great things for animals — like making bat boxes to save bats — and encourages kids to help, too. Don’t want to make a bat box at home? There are even easier ideas for helping wildlife, like not using toxic cleaning supplies at home.

Be sure to check out some of the efforts the zoo is undertaking to help endangered and threatened species. You won’t want to miss seeing the threatened Western pond turtles at the species conservation lab. They are adorably tiny. And leave time to learn more about the zoo’s efforts to save threatened butterfly species.

Just for fun, kids can take a break by crawling through hollowed-out logs or putting on a bug puppet show in the play area.


I really enjoyed the interactive map as part of the Get Outdoors exhibit. A large touch screen is loaded with the details of dozens of parks around the Portland metro area. Come up with the features you want — picnic area, rivers and nature exploration, perhaps, — and the screen will light up with the parks that meet your requirements. You can then click on the matches to see images of the park.

The highlight for the kids, though decidedly not for me, was the insect zoo. The insects are divided into three zones, temperate forest, desert, and tropical. The bugs are, well, big. And hairy. And despite signs that address “Why insects are awesome” I remain unconvinced. My kids, however, were enthralled by the massive centipedes and the Brazilian black tarantula. They were not fazed by the (shudder) pile of Madagascar hissing cockroaches (shudder shudder shudder).

The insect zoo also has a focus on conservation. One of the most memorable parts of the exhibit was a before-and-after look at what would be in your kitchen if bees were to vanish. It made the concept easy to grasp even for my 3-year-old.

If it’s not downpouring like it was during our visit, you should check out the wildlife garden as you exit. There you can explore tips for making your own garden a natural habitat for native plants and animals. You can find a tutorial on raising backyard bees. And, as every good Portlander should expect, there’s a tutorial on composting. There’s even an area your kids can dig around in for (fake) critters that might live in your compost bin.

Finally, Discovery Plaza also includes a nature play area. This is in a separate area from the Education Center, located just past the adjacent café. The area is small, but has lots to amuse the kids, including branches and exposed roots to explore, logs to climb on, an impressive-looking nest to ogle, and raised sandboxes to dig and play in.

The best part of the education center for me, though, was all the questions it raised for my kids. “Why would anyone litter?” “Why are butterflies going away?” “Can we build a bee house?” And, of course, “Why do you think bugs are so creepy?” The last question at least is easy. Because they literally are. The bee house one we’re still discussing.

The Details

Discovery Plaza
4001 SW Canyon Rd.

Entrance is free with admission.

Ali Wilkinson
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