Potter Park Zoo
Lansing Charter Township, MI
Stories shared in childhood influence us for a lifetime. We learned to fear the Big Bad Wolf, bats that enter bedrooms at night to drink blood, and the slimy satanic snake. Conversely, Yogi taught us that bears are smart and will steal our food. Smokey taught us that we can prevent forest fires. Our Teddy Bear comforted us. In fact, in an era of massive slaughter of wildlife in the United States, a cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt sparing the life of a chained bear changed our perception of that species forever. We learned to love and respect bears through stories. Docents have many tools to choose in sharing the conservation message including live animals, biofacts, artifacts, and graphics. If we accept that our loves and fears are anchored in childhood stories, if follows that building upon the child’s natural love of animals in combination with quality children’s literature makes for memorable learning experiences even when dealing with difficult topics.
Potter Park Zoo’s Children’s Library has increasingly become an important component of educational programs, yet for many years the library was a relic locked away in an office where few had access and only dust seemed to gather. Office space reassignment brought the collection to light. Much of the old collection was of little value. Creating a zoo library without a budget required searching through books withdrawn from area public libraries, thrift shop donations, and the occasional retail purchase. We used Google Drive to create a searchable catalog for our collection.
Book selection requires keeping the animal collection, programming goals, and visitors in mind. Just as our attitudes towards animals and relationships are influenced by early stories, so are attitudes towards reading. There is no value in shelving books that do not connect with your visitors and message. Selections must be attractive and enjoyable to children while addressing program topics and themes.
- Picture book illustrations are often more powerful than the text. While it is easy to find beautiful illustrations that are pleasing to the eye, illustrations must be accurate to the plot and characters. Avoid books with cartoon, movie, or television tie-ins, Such commercial products often stress the characters above the message.
- Setting illustrations are powerful. Biome illustrations in picture books such as I See a Kookaburra! assist docents in making habitat loss understood and often address biodiversity.
- The zoo serves a diverse community. Discover books that reflect our diverse world. Pictures and texts must honor all people and avoid stereotyping.
- Our conservation message is shared with visitors from preschool through adult. This requires finding multiple books addressing the same topic. Length and amount of text per page should be appropriate to the age or development of the child. Generally, the longer the text, the more mature a child must be to appreciate it. Students enjoying It’s a Frog’s Life: My Story of Life in a Pond or Toad would be insulted if you shared Hoptoad with them.
- Make use of professional recommendations such as Caldecott, Horn Book, Parents’ Choice, Charlotte Zolotow, Coretta Scott King, and Notable Children’s Books awards. The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year, Children’s Choices Reading List and journal reviews can be helpful. Remember that just because a book wins many awards is no guarantee that it will make a good read-loud. Amazon.com reviews can help in making decisions about book selection.
- Talk with teachers, librarians, and bookstore owners.
- Never share a book with children that you have not read yoursel
Opportunities for incorporating picture books into zoo programs abound:
- Holiday and themed events present an obvious link with literature. Picture books such as Is Your Mama a Llama? and Animal Dads are enjoyed and remembered by numerous families during the spring holidays honoring parents and encourage children to look at exhibits with greater care. Enjoying a cookie while listening to The Night Tree, Snow Ravens, or Bear Noel enhances the “Wonderland of Lights” celebration at the zoo.
- Programs for the very young such as “Zoo Play” and “Caterpillar Club” always incorporate picture books and board books. Owl Babies, Over in the Meadow, and The very Busy Spider are favorites of parents and toddlers.
- Potter Park Zoo’s “Reading with the Animals” program builds relationships between children and volunteers, picture books are paired with our education animals, and crafts become zoovenirs. The program brings return visitors weekly throughout the summer.
- Extended learning times with classroom field studies during the school year and our Zookambi Summer Camps have students of all ages using literature for research, sketching, and engaging in composition based on mentor texts.
- “March is Reading Month” classroom outreaches allow our zoo to connect with hundreds of children. We share picture books, biofacts, our conservation message and an invitation to attend exciting summer happenings at the zoo. Pairing the tiger skull with a picture book such as Augustus and his Smile hooks young children every time.
There is an art to sharing books.
People of all ages enjoy a good story. Just ask Ira Glass or Garrison Keeler! Shared reading provides visitors of varying skills, opportunities, and backgrounds with a common experience from which you can explore your topic. Engage the explorer/scientist in your listener. Scientists are active participants and careful observers. They make predictions, ask questions and offer alternative solutions. These are all skills necessary to the appreciation of literature as well.
Reading aloud doesn’t come naturally. Practice. Listen to your voice. Go with the rhythm of the book. Vary the tone, pace and use silly voices when appropriate. Be animated and enthusiastic. Have fun. Never share a book that you don’t love.
As a reader you must stay alert, engaged and on the edge of your seat, but listeners should be close, comfortable, able to easily view illustrations, and as free of distractions as possible. Be sure to maintain frequent eye contact with visitors.
Prior to reading and /or following the story, make use of education animals, enlarged photographs, skulls, pelts, artifacts and other props to engage as many senses as possible. This will help children remember the experience and provide them with plenty to talk about after their visit.
Contrast fictional stories or poems with non-fiction selections on the same topic. Ask guests assist in choral reading; alternating the reading a page from the story with a page from the informational text.
Invite children to compare and contrast illustrations from picture books with enlarged photographs of animals from your zoo’s collection.
Find ways for children to participate in the reading through activities such as movement, expression, repetition of phrases, providing the rhyme, or sharing predictions. Sharing can be done between partners as well as whole group.
Literacy is empowerment. The dynamics of contemporary schools, zoos, and libraries are changing. In our efforts to remain relevant we must support common efforts with every tool available. Public institutions have seen budgets slashed while demands have increased. Docents strive to empower students with empathy, information and a sense of responsibility for stewardship of our natural world. If children are going to accept our conservation mission become and agents for change, they must be literate, questioning, caring life-long learners. Docents give of their time and resources to further the mission of conservation. We know we engage the minds of children — with stories we are engaging children’s hearts as well.