Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA offers several classes for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that promote the zoo’s mission of conservation of animals and their habitats. The Zoo Sprouts class is for kids ages 3-5 and their adult. The class requires pre-registration and costs $25 for each child/adult pair. Occurring twice a month on Tuesdays from 10am-11:30am, the class begins in the classroom where an instructor will lead the group in songs, stories, creative play, art, and movement. Afterward, the instructor brings the group to an exhibit on the zoo grounds. Themes have included bugs, colors of the wild, and gorillas. Young Explorers, which is similar to Zoo Sprouts, occurs in the warmer months from 9:45am-11am and costs $20 for each child/adult pair. The class is geared toward children ages 2-5 and includes outdoor play stations, a puppet story, and live animal encounters. The focus for the kids is on being a naturalist. The content is tailored to children but instructors are there to answer any questions adults may have.
The zoo is happy to serve some of their immediate community’s youngest members through these programs. Instructors hope that everyone learns something new and has fun. Kids have the opportunity to play with kids their own age in a kid-safe area and see live animals up close. Staff members aim to provide age-appropriate opportunities for early learners to be challenged in ways that lead to positive development as they grow with their families and the zoo. These classes expose kids to some of things they can expect in preschool or kindergarten such as sitting in a story circle or structured play and craft time. Instructors hope that adults will enjoy meeting other parents and caregivers and staff try to encourage adult fellowship, networking and support. Hopefully, adults will learn the zoo’s conservation message to share with their children as well.
The message of conservation of wildlife and habitats is at the heart of everything the zoo does. Learning about animals and gaining a general appreciation and awareness provides opportunities for children to develop empathy for people and animals. The classes aim to empower families to play outdoors, and to become good earth stewards. The zoo is arranged in bioclimatic zones and so are the class themes. This helps the content to be place-based as well as globally connected.
Staff members at Woodland Park Zoo have found some successful design strategies in developing their programs. They title the classes in exciting ways that connect to animals or nature. Programs with snappy, enthusiastic titles tend to sell better. Staff members also keep track of which programs are successful and run them again. Adapting and reusing certain elements in other programs cuts down on staff prep time. During the classes, instructors keep things flexible so they can be prepared to change things quickly if, an exhibit is closed, or there’s unexpected rain or a zoo-wide emergency. In addition, staff members have paid attention to the time of day classes are offered. After some prototyping (testing out a program called Early Risers on the weekends) they found that starting around 10am on Tuesdays works well, but not any earlier. Adults are not interested in early programs on weekend mornings.
After running the classes several times, staff members have discovered some successful facilitation techniques. For example, instructors hand out name tags to both children and adults and use this as a way to initiate engagement. Instructors make sure to speak directly to children, not about them to their caregivers. Providing time for free play at the beginning of classes allows children and adults to settle into the classroom. Instructors maintain engagement by always switching activities (after a sufficient amount of time) and changing the types of activities to keep the momentum going and help early learners stay on track. Staff members encourage participation from the adults by using clear language in the class descriptions online (“Grown-ups must come ready to play!”). They also utilize instructional language to get adults involved such as referring to children and their caregivers as “my friends and their adults,” and repeating phrases such as “working together.” When they have older caregivers such as grandparents who are less accustomed to getting down on the floor to play, the staff tries to model good behavior and strategies for talking and engaging with children. Because most family members who sign up for the class are there specifically to have those meaningful experiences with their child, staff members find adult participation and engagement isn’t hard to achieve.
Most of the classes are part of an ongoing series which encourages repeat visitation, and after each class instructors give tips for adults to use the next time they are at the zoo such as good play spots, good animal viewing tips, and fun activities to do on the grounds.
Special thanks to Renee Plourde, Education Programs Coordinator at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA. http://www.zoo.org/