To the long history of Americans' infatuation with pizza, we're about to add another chapter. When the new Kids' Farm opens in June at the National Zoo here in Washington, a big, climb-aboard pie will be one of the principal attractions. What's the pizza doing on a farm? Indeed, what's a farm doing at the Zoo? When people think of the animals they expect to find at a zoo, it's the popular megavertebrates that come first to mind—lions, tigers, pandas, great apes, elephants and such. The animals that have the greatest impact on their lives—chickens and cattle, for example—are seldom featured; in fact, in today's ever more urbanized society, they may be as rarely seen in a natural setting as exotic species. At the Kids' Farm youngsters will be introduced to these "everyday" animals and their habitats. The farm is home to a cow pasture, a chicken house, a duck house, a red barn, and a "caring corral," where children will have an opportunity to perform routine chores and wash and care for goats and miniature donkeys under the supervision of Zoo staff and FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) volunteers. To many kids who visit the exhibit, the distinctive order and routines of a rural world may be as foreign as the landscape of the moon.
The Kids' Farm covers nearly two outdoor acres of the Zoo and was built with a $5 million appropriation from Congress. Particular thanks are due Congressman Ralph Regula (R-OH), a longtime member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, who championed the project. The exhibit is designed to appeal most to children between the ages of 3 and 8, but it won't hurt for adults as well to be reminded of the two fundamental messages the young are meant to take from the site. The first is that the proper care of animals requires a canny mix of patience, attention, dedication, common sense and knowledge. The second is that the greater part of the food we eat each day comes from farms.
Which brings me to that pizza—22 feet across, brightly colored, rubber-surfaced (all too often like the real thing) and pedestrian friendly, dominating a play area that's separate from the animals' terrain. The pie conveys the second message of the exhibit: all the principal ingredients of this popular food are farm products. (Ours is a veggie pizza; no anchovies, please.) The high-density foam toppings include slices of mushrooms and onions that can be moved about the pie, a stationary big tomato, a wedge of cheese kids can slide down, and the hollow wheel of a black olive large enough for a child to curl within like a bit of stuffing. The pizza is surrounded by an assortment of hands-on exhibits that connect the ingredients with their origins on the farm. A stylized laminate olive tree, for example, flips open to reveal how the olives get from tree to topping. But not everything here is plastic. On the wedge-shaped plots of an adjacent circular garden, framed by a foam square that mimics the shape of a pizza box, we'll be growing real tomatoes, olives, peppers, garlic and other herbs, wheat and—with a nod to the cardboard pizza box—a pine tree.
Make no mistake about it, the Kids' Farm is, above all, a place to have fun. The messages don't overwhelm. The outsized rubber pizza can be just that, and needn't be topped with meaning. And kids don’t have to think "rural context" when they wash a goat. But that's not to diminish the exhibit's gently instructive lessons: do not underestimate what it takes to care for an animal, and do not think that food grows in microwavable containers. Proust had a bit of fancy cake to propel him into the past; there's no reason that a supersized pizza can't ease children into a richer present.