Penguins, Picasso and Petunias: A New Approach to Touring, Zoos, Art Museums and Outdoor Spaces
Docent, Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association
Los Angeles, CA
Museums, Zoo and Botanical Gardens have been around for over a hundred years. The public’s views of how these spaces are used have changed over time. In the past, they were seen as places to marvel at the mysterious and the unknown. Many people had never seen a giraffe, a tropical orchid or Chinese scroll until they visited a museum, zoo or botanical garden. As the times have changed, and technology has opened the doors to the world, informal space’s roles in our community have also changed. One thing hasn’t changed, people, young and old, haven’t stopped visiting the
world’s museums, zoos and botanical gardens to learn, explore, be entertained, and have a one-of-a-kind experience.
Excursions or field trips are a common component of any school curriculum and informal spaces visitorship. Field trips enrich school lessons by providing first-hand experiences with people, places, and things that can’t be found in a video, book, or on a worksheet. Zoos, museums and botanical gardens feed children’s natural curiosity of the world by providing unique settings to engage with the real thing. Studies have shown that excursions have helped with developing language, observations and memory skills, as well as reinforcing children’s prior knowledge. Children learn more, and enjoy learning when they are actively involved. Informal spaces that engage visitors of different ages and learning styles, whether it involves props, live animals or biofacts, create greater opportunities for learning.
Respected Educator, John Dewey, believed the traditional classroom fostered immobility, passivity and listening, not research and experimentation. Designing a field trip experience that supports research, experimentation and discovery can create lasting memories, and foster future naturalists, scientists, and cultural supporters.
How to Start:
Teachers are finding it harder to justify field trips unless the trip is tied into State standards, lesson plans or Open Court. Tours need cover particular themes, subjects, and ideas otherwise complaints are voiced. Altering a tour can be tough, but not impossible. Incorporating books, movement, discussion, props, and more, you can transform a brag and drag tour to one that keeps your group engaged, questioning, and discovering the entire time.
- Have a quick discussion with the teacher before the tour starts, what are the students learning in the classroom, and how does s/he see the field trip fitting into their lessons back at school.
- Talk to the children about the subjects they are learning about.
- Let the children’s ideas and interests guide what will be explored on your trip.
- It may take some fast thinking, but you are the expert, the holder of knowledge. Use it to transform the experience.
- Chaperones – enlist your chaperones to participate in the excursion. Instead of having the adults just watch the group enlist them along the tour to teach an activity, share a story or song.
- Create a bag of resources – bring along on your tour items for the group to investigate. Creating a bag like this may take some time and thought, but it will add so much to your experience. For example, bring along some binoculars, sketch pads, or items that represent the animals or objects you are examining. Fill your bag with textures or faux fur that mimics the zoo animal’s skin or fur and a piece of rope for measuring out an animal’s length. Books or a short story to read. Blank paper and pencils to write important discoveries down.
The Field Trip
You as the tour guide – You are familiar with what needs to be taught and you are the expert. You can lead the tour as you have always done it by going from exhibit to exhibit sharing facts, asking questions and pointing things out OR you think about how a storybook, a song, a movement activity, or some props could take a tour to a whole different level.
Quote: Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds, do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire. Anatole France, as quoted in the Earth Speaks
- Set the Scene – Enroll your children in becoming researchers, zoologists, botanists, art historians or naturalists during the tour. Pose questions to the group as they explore so that the excursion is focused, directed, and relevant to what is being learned in the classroom and their interests. Lean toward open- ended questions, such as list, describe, why, or explain instead of closeended questions, such as what is this? or who painted this picture? Stop along the way to check in and hear what they are learning, discovering and finding out.
- Bag of Resources – As you explore the art museum, zoo or botanical garden, pull out the items you have brought in your resource bag. Have your class look through the binoculars, a small picture frame, biofact, collect seeds in a collecting bag, examine an insect under the magnifying glass, and feel a swatch of faux fur. These items will add the experience, provide children with opportunities to increase vocabulary, make connections, reinforce prior knowledge, learn new things, and make the excursion more memorable.
- Bring a Camera -Take pictures and record the experience. If you have the opportunity, allow the children to take a few pictures. Having the children take pictures will help develop observation skills. Talk about the rules of the place they are visiting. Many places don’t allow pictures in certain areas. Use the opportunity to teach the children about the proper ways to explore a museum, zoo or outdoor space without leaving a negative footprint. Email the photos to the teacher/classroom, they can discuss the photos and use the images to remind them what they saw.
- Movement – Find a way to incorporate some organized movement in the tour. Encourage the children to move like a particular animal, stand like a flamingo, brachiate like a gibbon, or gallop like a zebra. As they move, interject facts or cool the group down with a brief discussion. They will remember an animal more when they are acting like it then hearing about it.
- Art – Art is applicable for any tour. Sketch books, color keys, and art images can add an element of art to any tour, and help your right brain learners. A sketch pad encourages observations skills, fine motor, and gives the child a solid memory of the experience. Color key, are small collection of colored squares of construction paper toed or clipped together. You can use the key, to get your children looking for colors as they walk, view objects, or explore the flora.
- Music – SSSHHH, don’t make a sound! Music can be done in such a way that no one will be disturbed. Imagine teaching your children a simple song that reinforces what is being taught. They could sing it as they walk or during a bathroom pit stop. Using their body, hands, fingers, feet or arms, the children can replicate the sounds of a tree, an animal walking, or weather. Music is a great tool for strengthening listening skills and adding a memorable experience to a fact filled tour.
- Books – Stacks of books have been written about animals, art, and plants.Find a book just right for your experience and incorporate it into your tour. Use a story from Rudyard Kipling to explain how the elephant got its trunk or Eric Carle to tell how a flower grows from a seed. Books and stories are a good way to incorporate a simple creative writing activity into a tour or calm a rowdy group and get them refocused.
As a Docent, you can promote optimal experience through intentional and thoughtful tours. Passion and creativity are essential ingredients for powerful and effective interpretation – passion for the resource and for the children who come to be inspired by the same. By addressing a variety of learning styles with creative activities, you create memorable experiences for all.