Today Sarah showed us her true stripes as the Zoo’s Education Specialist: We focused on how children learn and how to interpret the world of animals for them.
The real job of kids is to learn and the way they learn is to play. There are all kinds of types of play, though, and Sarah took us through everything from the solitary play of babies to the sophisticated world of cooperative play among seven year olds.
The real job of docents in the Children’s Zoo is to encourage kids to learn about animals through play. We can do this by helping them to explore with all their senses.
Back out to the Zoo
Most of our day was spent in the Zoo learning from the keepers and experienced docents.
First, the goats introduced themselves while Keeper Chelsea introduced us to the contact yard and took us into the kitten room to meet the three fluffballs there.
It’s nice to know that everywhere in the Zoo animals have a chance to take themselves “off exhibit” when they want a break, but it is especially important in the contact yard. This makes them happy campers when they are out among the children and the kids find a lot of joy in their friendliness. I watched one little girl circle the yard while leaning her full weight against a Nubian Goat. The patient goat managed to stand upright and went along cheerfully with this bonding experience.
Next, it was down to the animal commissary where Keeper Zach took us on a tour of Food Central—the place where everything that is fed to our residents gets brought in, prepared and disseminated to the keepers. We saw an elephant popsicle in the works, volunteers sorting crates of donated fruit so only fresh, ripe peaches will make it into the food bowls, and freezers packed with everything from whole chickens to fig newtons.
Fig newtons make great Trojan Horses, Zach said, for the vitamin pills nearly all our animals would rather not take.
It is amazing how many stores, organizations and farms donate fresh food to our animals daily. On top of that we buy over $100,000 of hay a year plus everything else—cereals, special zoo diets, meat, nuts, yogurt and other treats including insects and live fish. Every species has its own special diet and there are pages of recipes our commissary staff prepares daily.
Role Modeling Interpretation
When we got back to the classroom we were going to learn about the art and science of interpreting exhibits to children and adults, so as a warm-up we were divided into groups so experienced docents could model how they would engage kids with various animals in the Zoo. There are four parts to the formula and, depending the age of the child, sometimes the parent is the audience as much as the kids.
The first docent in my group was Carol Kerbel at the River Otter exhibit. She used a puppet to engage a little girl with her dad and show us the four steps we will learn to cover for every animal.
Step One: Tell an interesting fact about the animal. “Hi, I’m a River Otter,” she said while making the otter puppet talk. “I live on the land and under the water. My special paws help me swim. Can you hold your hand like this? That’s right. That’s how you swim under water. And I have whiskers so I can feel my food when I’m down there.” She let the little girl pet the puppet’s whiskers.
Step Two: Tell what threatens their survival. This girl was very young so Carol said, “The water is my home so I need it to be very clean so I can live in it.” Looking at the dad, she continued. “My cousins, the sea otters are having lots trouble because their home is the ocean and it is getting dirty.”
Step Three: Tell what we can do to help. “You can help me by keeping our rivers and streams clean.” Clearly, this was a message to the dad. “Wash your car in a car wash and don’t use chemicals in your yard because all the soapy water and pesticides go into the rivers and ocean and make my house dirty.”
Step Four: Tell what the Zoo is doing to help. “We pick up our trash because everything on the ground can blow into our creek and go out to the ocean.” The little girl was entranced and asked to hug the otter puppet.
We saw versions of this four-part message at every station. A young man was taught about the size of our bats (the docent used a rope to demonstrate wingspan). We learned more about our pigs, and ended up enjoying the antics of the lemurs, who were being fed.
Interpretation is an Art
Sarah is credentialed by the National Association for Interpretation as a guide and as a trainer of other guides. She had put together a concise summary of an amazing amount of information about interpretation for the last half-hour of class.
It all boils down to making information relevant to any particular audience. That is the best way to help them learn about and remember what they’ve seen. Here’s a sample of a message that might help adults appreciate bats:
Oh no. We knew this was coming, but I didn’t expect it so soon. In addition to the normal homework that will send us into all the Zoo’s websites to gather conservation messages, we have to write the outline of our final presentations.
Each of us is assigned an animal in the Children’s Zoo to discuss for 2-3 minutes. Mine is the Black Tree Monitor which I now will have to pay a visit. I can’t say that I am really excited about this particular animal (why-oh-why couldn’t I have a mammal?) but maybe after I do my research and spend time with it, I will be. Maybe.
Have a great weekend,