The Philadelphia Zoo’s mission statement is “By connecting people with wildlife, the Philadelphia Zoo creates joyful discovery and inspires action for animals and habitats.”
KidZooU: Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo & Faris Family Education Center
In 2013, the Philadelphia Zoo opened a new exhibit, creating a university centered on the concept of empowering children to become conservation stewards and feel as though they can make a difference in saving wildlife. KidZooU is divided into 4 indoor sections and outdoor exhibits all especially designed to convey both empathy and empower children to save energy to save wildlife specifically. KidZooU was also built utilizing a Universal Design Approach, with interpretive signage for the vision-impaired, hearing-impaired and children on the autism spectrum. In addition, KidZooU provides a hands-on experience with rare breed animals and dynamic exhibits.
Faris Family Education Center
On one end, is the Animal Action Lab. This is where students from Pre-K through Grade 12 can engage in inquiry-based classes using technology and animal interactions to meet all of the curriculum needs for science classes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
In the middle section, a child can watch a butterfly emerge, see budgies, work a recycling truck, check out the coral reef. Here the children are asked to play interactive games that lead to creative thinking about conservation. How do you save a polar bear? How can you conserve water? Why do you need to conserve water? Why is recycling important?
In the south end of the Education Center, children are immersed in many opportunities to develop empathy for animals. A child can watch rats run across a rope or recycle an item; watch ants gather food and build a home, through parallel play they can pretend to be that ant in the giant ant model; see chicks hatch, diving beetles dive, learn about hissing cockroaches or golden orb weaver spiders.
There is also a Tiny Tot Barn located in the south end. Very young children can go in and hear a horse whinny or hear a cow moo from touchable models on the young child’s level. This is also where docents can read a book about an ant or butterfly and have the opportunity to teach empathy. The books chosen bring to life the story from the animals point of view. How the animals feel and show the child that they are just like us.
KidZooU outside Exhibits
KidZooU has rare-breed goats, sheep, chickens, ducks and pigeons. Here is where a child can climb their own structure while the goats are climbing in their own separate, but parallel, structure! Through brushing the goats and sheep, children can begin making empathy connections by learning why and how they are not so different from us.
Docent interpretive roles have evolved because of this new exhibit. The Docent Council, in coordination with the Zoo’s Director of Public Programs, created a KidZooU committee. Its role is to take the zoo’s mission statement and the new KidZooU exhibits and create programs that would reflect joyful discovery and inspire action through a doing leads to caring approach.
This is different from the usual Just Ask which shows bio-facts and talks about animals. How do you create “joyful discovery and inspire action”? You and I know that animals are just like us in many ways, but kids and other adults don’t know this. We have to let them in on our secret!
KidZooU breaks from the traditional type of Children’s Zoo: here docents are asked to creatively engage children and adults.
The KidZooU committee developed exciting programs that inspire children and adults to not only think about the world around them, but feel inspired to take action. It’s just not enough to have an exhibit that starts the child thinking. We have to push that thought to the next level.
Our committee needed to develop an interpretive program for the docents that supports the Zoo’s the goals of the Universal Design Approach, engaging the needs of children of all abilities.
Programs that instill Empathy and Action:
Our activities are designed to inspire empathy with the animals though “doing leads to caring”. We needed to model empathy so that children can see it. What is it like for a goat to be brushed? Do you like to have your hair brushed? In the past, docents would only stand in front of an exhibit and talk about the animals. Where they come from, how much they weigh, what they like to eat, what their teeth or hair look and feel like. But never ask the children, “What do you like to eat?” “Do you know that rats like to eat things that taste good? Like cookies?” This is a different way to challenge children and to change what docents were taught in the past is difficult, but with practice we can learn too.
These activities also intend to empower the children to consider how they can make the lives of animals better.
The programs need to have an activity.
Activities were created with the following questions in mind:
- What is a quick activity to get a child’s attention?
- How does this activity connect to an animal? What is the animal feeling? Show the children that pleasant physical interactions for us also mean the same thing to animals. Scratching a goat under his chin feels great. What feels great to the child? What do animals have in common with us?
- What is the action step/idea with which the child will walk away? How did we change what the child is thinking? Will they think about animals differently? Will they look at a rat and say “Wow, rats are smart, they learned to recycle, I can recycle too”.
- The activities we created – The Goat Tote, Animal Enrichment, and Best Bets for Pets game.
In the Goat Tote, we had a brush, stuffed goats, a goat puppet, and goat milk soap & hand cream, a skein of mohair. We had goat cheese, yogurt and milk cartons. We also had goat ID cards and question-and-answer flip board. We needed to show children how to brush a goat. Explain to them how goats are important in other parts of the world. Give them the confidence that the goats wouldn’t hurt them; goats don’t have upper front teeth! They like to “taste” things. They are smart and inquisitive. Have the children focus on the experience of touching a goat and inducing empathy for the animal.
We needed to teach how the Zoo enriches the lives of the animals. Children have toys, so do animals in the zoo. We had the children pick animal enrichment toys out of a basket and have them match it to the animals and ask why they chose that item.
Best Bets for Pets:
We had the children sort various stuffed animals into categories based on their appropriateness as pets. What is a good choice and why? Choose which pets need less care and which need space and lots of care.
Some of the questions we use are:
- Do you do a lot after school or are you at home a lot?
- Is there someone at home to help you care for your pet?
- Do you want a pet that is like a windup toy, there when you want it but fine to leave alone?
- Do you have a lot of money to spend on the care of your pet or will it come out of your allowance?
- Do you care if your pet stinks?
- Do you want a pet to cuddle? Play with? Or just watch?
Fast forward to 2014…
After one year under our belt, the zoo takes the “Doing leads to Caring” to the next step. “Joyful discoveries that inspire action”.
The Zoo opens “Zoo 360”. Tigers are walking above and across our main path! What? There is nothing like the sight of 2-year-old Amur tiger cubs walking above you. That is a perspective that you just can’t turn down.
Our animals move up and across the zoo. We have an overhead primate trail, an overhead ape trial and an overhead big cat trail.
This gives the animals’ enrichment, the ability to choose what they want and where they want to go. No other exhibit allows the animals to explore in this way. They can hear and smell their environment. This also gives Docents the opening to question guests: Do you think they like being up there and why? I love to have the ability to roam free and choose what I am doing now, don’t you?
As you might be aware now, the Philadelphia Zoo has made a commitment to giving freedom to animals to make choices. Now they have that choice; where they want to travel and what to see and experience; and, in turn, the zoo gives guests the option to experience a joyful discovery that will inspire action.