PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- The scene is one of fun and playfulness. In one corner, children in swimsuits send bamboo sticks and wooden fish down a waterfall. In another, kids examine shells under magnifying glasses while others play a xylophone. Across the way, others make forts out of sheets and an overturned row boat. A giant treehouse looms nearby and not far away, a tire swing.
This may be Roger Williams Park Zoo, but there are no animals to be seen at its new exhibit, Hasbro's Our Big Backyard and the CVS Caremark All Kids Can Treehouse. The goal of the exhibit, which opened last month, is to use play to help children build a relationship with the nature they can find simply by going out in their own backyards, which zoo officials hope is a step toward creating lifelong conservationists.
"It's a great addition because it's so hands-on, which is very different for a zoo," said Ruth Crane of Providence, who came with her 8-year-old son, Jack.
As she spoke, Jack stood nearby and controlled the flow of water that squirted several feet in the air as other children ran through, giggling. Next to him, other children experimented with a wall of spigots and hoses to try to figure out how water flowed through them.
The $5.5 million project is aimed at children ages 3 to 9 and includes a house, the backyard, which features a variety of play zones, and "Beyond the Fence," which includes a nature trail and treehouse. The treehouse contains telescopes, sound machines, a "smell wheel" and other interactive fun. The final element of the project, an exhibit of animals native to New England, including porcupines, turkeys and lynxes, is scheduled to open in 2014 along the nature trail.
The exhibit has been jam-packed most days since opening, said officials at the zoo, one of the largest in New England, which typically draws 600,000 visitors per year. Even when it rains or gets cold, the exhibit will be able to stay open because it has plenty of indoor space in its greenhouse. Snow activities are planned for the winter.
After her first visit to the exhibit, Joy Adamonis of Warwick, who came with her 4-year-old son, Landon, said she planned to get a zoo membership. Landon, soaking wet from playing with water, also had fun on the tire swing, creating "wind" with a wind machine hidden behind a cloud in the treehouse and going on a scavenger hunt for insects, his mother said. She said she was excited for him to try out the nature swap, located in the exhibit's house, on their next visit.
The swap lets kids trade things they find in nature -- an unusual pine cone, for example, traded for a dead beetle. They can also leave the item, write a story about something they experienced in nature, take a picture or do some other activity to earn points they can save up to trade for prizes. Sixty points gets you a small antler or a sea star, 600 gets a log with black bear scratches. The ultimate prize, a bison skull with horns, goes for 120,000 points.
"Now I can go home, go in my backyard, find a rock or something," Adamonis said.
Chris Hitchener, the program manager at the exhibit, haggled with one little boy who brought in a molt of a horseshoe crab. It gave Hitchener a chance to deliver a quick lesson in conservation. He explained that the swap won't accept horseshoe crabs because zoo officials don't want to disturb a population that has had trouble in the past. (Plus, horseshoe crab molts smell terrible.)
But he gave the boy a quest: Return the molt to the beach where he found it and get 150 points to bank for something else. The boy left with a smile.
Hitchener, a former state naturalist, said there has been a push in children's zoos to get away from petting zoos, which can stress out animals that are subjected to touching by hundreds of children a day, and toward play, which he said helps children connect with nature in a way that can motivate and excite them.
"I'm trying to get families to do the outdoor play," he said. "It's all about this foundation of love and appreciation."