EMPOWERING CHILDREN THROUGH DOCENTING
Jodi Henderson, Sandra Pinto and Colleen Dunhill Jones
Calgary Zoo, Botanical Gardens & Prehistoric Park Calgary, Alberta, Canada
“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. And we will understand only what we are taught.”
You have arrived at the zoo for your docent shift. You see the public arriving through the gates. There are children of a variety of ages. There are infants in arms, toddlers, and preschoolers. You spot a familiar face from a Brownie program you led last week, and there is a group of elementary school children heading to Zoo School. As a docent, you could be interacting with any, or possibly all, of these groups by means of a touch table, or in a classroom, or even while standing outside the gorilla enclosure. These various age groups will learn in different ways. By being aware of how various age groups learn, docents can tailor conservation messages to better suit the audience.
First, you need to have an idea of how old a child is, and time or situation often does not allow us to ask. We use a few rules of thumb:
The Toddler: These are the wee ones – from the babe in arms to the toddler of approximately 3 years old. Always accompanied by an adult, the usual method of Toddler locomotion is being carried (in slings, backpacks, on the adult’s shoulders) or conveyed in strollers.
The Preschooler: In the 3-6 year age range. Preschoolers are easily distinguished by the ever-demanding question “Why?” Harder to carry, and much more mobile than the Toddler, the Preschooler is often seen yanking on a parent’s arm in the general direction of their favorite exhibit. Occasionally transported in wagons. Preschoolers stand approximately waist high and want to touch everything.
Early Elementary: These are the Beavers, the Cubs, and the Brownies. This group is past the separation stage, so they’re less likely to be holding a parent’s hand, but the parent is usually near by.
Pre-Teens: This group may avoid contact with adults – especially their parents. They start showing signs of uniformity of dress, and are often given to laughing and giggling – especially when the opposite sex is around. Pre-Teens stand about shoulder height.
Honoring the Stages of Development
Our role as docents is to present important conservation messages. Is there anything more satisfying to a docent than seeing a child’s eyes light up with wonder at a touch table& biofact? To ensure your message touches the hearts of children, here are some general ways in which children learn.
The Toddler set is egocentric. Their world revolves around them, and their immediate world exists in their backyard. They are very accepting of what they are told – they are fact collecting – such as an animal’s name, a flower’s color, etc. The senses play a very important role in their lives, especially the senses of touch and taste. This group has to touch fur in order to understand fur. They are very naturally drawn to the small things in the world, and just love animal babies and seedlings. When talking about an animal, show the Toddler a picture of the whole animal (not just its face), as this age group may otherwise have difficulty connecting the word with the concept.
Preschoolers begin categorizing and putting into order the wealth of information they absorbed as Toddlers. They now understand a seed is first planted, then it grows, then it flowers, then it makes seeds. These children are very hands-on — very appreciative of the opportunity of touching. Much of their learning is through experience. They like to do things, and this active group has short attention spans. Their world horizon has expanded from their own backyard to the broader environments of their neighborhood or community. Preschoolers are beginning to make cognitive connections between words and concepts, so pictures help reinforce the message.
For the Early Elementary group, visual experiences are important, but they now gain information through instruction. Educators call this “the age of abstraction,” meaning they move away from the tactile experience and can better visualize abstract concepts. They can visualize beyond the present. This is a very imaginative age group. They have longer attention span.
This Pre-Teen group is ready for problem solving. They begin to question information and also to apply information. In so doing, they come up with very creative ideas! These children are ready for social action. They have the longest attention span.
The Touch Table Experience
Since children are so hands-on, a touch table offers them the unique experience of actually being asked to touch or hold a biofact. Presentation is everything to attract them to you, but at the same time each age group has needs to be addressed.
Let’s assume we are doing a touch table about an animal found in Alberta – the grizzly bear.
For the very young child whose eye level is barely at table height, our conversation is limited to saying what the biofact is: “This is a block of bear fur” and letting them touch the fur. This age group must be shown a picture of the animal, as they may not be able to visualize what a bear is. Our message could be limited to a simple fact: “We have bears at our zoo.”
Interaction with Preschoolers may well sound like this: “This is the fur from a bear” – give them the fur sample to touch and show a picture of the animal for visual confirmation. “Bears live in the mountains. They sleep in dens all winter. The babies are born in the dens. They come out in the Spring. They eat berries and, yes, they do like honey. We have bears at our zoo.”
Early Elementary children have a lot of computer savvy and are often connected electronically with endangered animals and ecosystems around the world – they may know about giant pandas and why they are endangered.
However, they may actually be quite disconnected with the world at their back door, they may know very little about grizzly and black bears, or other animals found in their local environment. Conversations with this group entail more detailed information than is presented to Preschoolers: “This is a grizzly bear, an animal we have right here in Alberta. This is what a grizzly bear looks like. They eat grasses, roots, berries, ground squirrels and even fish for salmon. They like to live and travel in forested river valleys. Such large animals need large territories, about 80 km (50 miles), and they don’t like to cross roads. We have four different kinds of bears at our zoo.”
With the Pre-Teens, who are at the age and stage to understand and take up moral issues, a block of grizzly bear fur can raise discussions about grizzlies in Alberta (appearance, food, range, habitat), why we have them at our zoo (relocation), and the problems facing them (loss of habitat, poaching, over hunting, genetic islandization). Now conservation issues can be introduced, including positive initiatives (highway overpasses, corridor conservation such as Y2Y project.)
Let Them First Love the Earth
Enquiries as to what made some people become environmentalists indicated they had a profound love of their environment as children. As they matured, concern grew out of that fundamental love, and as adults they turned their concern into actions. The current buzzword for this is “empowerment.”
A danger to be avoided, though, is the laying of the world’s problems on the shoulders of our children, who already have too many concerns and not enough contact with nature. We must first offer children the opportunity to bond with the natural world and to love it before we ask them to heal its wounds. Below the Pre-Teen years, there is no need for doom and gloom messages, just opportunities to develop a love for the world that we as docents can model for them. Connecting with nature is the empowerment experience the zoo offers children.
Docents can empower children to make meaningful contributions to conservation by first encouraging their love of the natural world. By structuring our interactions with children in ways that take advantage of how children learn, we can be more confident they are actually receiving our messages. We are laying foundation stones for future environmentalists and conservationists.