E3=For Every Positive Interaction There is an Equally Positive Reaction
Lorri Courtright and David Defide
Pittsburgh Zoo, Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh’s winters are unpredictable. One week may bring in the blustery Lake Erie wind chills, and the next the welcoming anticipation of spring. One week docents will outnumber zoo visitors, and the next will be kept busy the entire time at touchtables and exhibit guiding. Planning docent activities in the winter became a lesson in trial-and-error for the Pittsburgh Docent Education Committee.
In the past several years, as chair and co-chair of the Committee, we’ve struggled to find a happy medium whereby diehard docents could continue the role of educator during the off season while bringing as many new or `hibernating’ docents as possible into our Winter Safari programs. Encouraging docents to man the single touchtable or `practice’ exhibit guiding techniques proved less than successful with only a handful of core docents participating each Saturday. The new millennium ushered in the chance to develop new programs that challenged Pittsburgh Docents to get involved and stay involved during the winter months – Winter Safari 2001: A Rainforest Odyssey and E3 = Exploring Earth’s Ecosystems 2002. Both proved to be successful experiments.
The Odyssey concept was to offer a nine-week program on each Saturday in February and March that would take zoo visitors on a virtual tour of one of the earth’s major rainforest areas. Venues included The Amazing Amazon, Exploring Africa and Madagascar, Backpacking Borneo and Oceania, and Adventure Across Asia, and finishing with a “Best of Odyssey” highlighting those displays most visited and enjoyed by zoo tourists.
The initial response from many docents was encouraging. Many who chose not to do winter programs in the past were happy to get involved and earn docent hours with research and poster displays in their areas of interest. And with so many and varied ideas being tossed about, many more docents were drawn into the excitement.
Odyssey opened with The Amazing Amazon. Docents welcomed guests at the door of our Tropical Forest Complex (TFC) with a passport, an eight to ten page booklet highlighting facts, trivia, and games. Questions on plants, animals and people native to the venue became part of a scavenger hunt. The answers were hidden throughout the TFC gardens on signs held by cutouts of a native animal. The passport also included `sticker pages’ of wildlife; and visitors were encouraged to collect corresponding animal stickers from docents in the exhibit areas.
As visitors proceeded through the TFC, exhibits on the people of the region, the plant life and its uses, modern day intrusion by man that threatens the Rainforests’ survival, animals of the area, both well-known and lesser-known, and touchtables of artifacts from that week’s chosen rainforest were displayed. Handouts including coloring pages and games were prepared for kids to take home. To carry the travel theme further, tickets were handed out to each visitor giving them an opportunity to win one of four backpacks filled with books, products, plush animals, etc., of each region.
Docent participation that winter skyrocketed with a total of 46 docents accumulating 1,025 volunteer hours; a very successful coup for the Education Committee. But as we reviewed and discussed the interaction between docents and guests, there were several areas where we noticed a need for improved teaching techniques. Many of the docents who volunteered were new, or not used to comfortably addressing crowds and getting the public involved. These became our target group for 2002. We encouraged touch tables and exhibit guiding throughout the rest of 2001, and gained many eager participants when they realized it wasn’t as difficult as they thought.
Encouraged by the prior year’s program, the Education Committee decided on a theme highlighting Earth’s unique ecosystems The Rainforests, Oceans and Polar Worlds, Wetlands and Woodlands, and the Desert. The plan was to construct as many interactive exhibit areas as possible, headed by those docents who had proven their skill at communicating with zoo visitors, and allowing them to form their own sub-committees of docents with whom they could easily work. Those volunteering for the first time, or who were still hesitant to speak much, would be placed with the “talkers”, giving them the encouragement to listen and learn. The idea again was met with enthusiasm and excitement; and a pleasant surprise for us was the amount of creativity and talents that suddenly emerged from the docents. Suggestions for exhibits, interactive tables and games, and crafts for kids came in from many docents who had previously been hesitant to respond to calls for help.
Many new strategies were planned to replace those Odyssey areas that just didn’t work out as we had expected. While the passport had served as an instructive tool, it offered little docent interaction. The sticker pages confused and frustrated visitors who sometimes couldn’t find the docent with the right picture. Poster exhibits, while filled with many interesting and well-researched facts, were often bypassed by adults keeping herd on preschoolers and younger children and by older students who seem to never take the time to read.
Instead, visitors were greeted at the entrance and asked to play `Are You My Mother.’ Based on a concept from information borrowed from last year’s AZAD Conference, visitors learned about sight and smell recognition of animal mothers and their young. Kids chose either a swatch of zebra or giraffe pattern, or a film canister of various smells, and were instructed to find their mother the docent wearing the corresponding badge of the pattern or carrying the canister with the same odor.
The E3 theme was carried throughout the TFC on cube shaped boxes collaged with magazine photos of flora and fauna, and scenery of the ecosystems so they could be used each week. Poster displays were incorporated near touchtables so that docents could call attention to the information on them by `hooking’ passersby, asking questions such as “Hey, did you know……?, Can you tell me…..?, Why do you think…….?”
Touchtables themselves, always a crowd pleaser, were developed to present our vast stock of artifacts with the addition of matching games for the younger set, games of skill for all, and handouts of pertinent information.
Every attempt was made to make all exhibits 3-D, colorful and exciting; and each providing some form of interaction for the visitors. Interactive play included, Welcome to the Dung Heap, challenging kids to roll a large playground ball backward with their feet into a box `nest’. As they participated, docents pointed out the usefulness of this little- appreciated insect. Penguin Walk had kids and adults balance a plush penguin on their shoes to simulate the penguins’ care of the young. The accompanying display highlighted photos from one docent’s recent trip to the Antarctic. In the Lizard Walk, kids mimicked the inhabitants of the hot desert sands, walking a length of carpet with footprints at short intervals. As they reached the prints, the alternately raised right arm/left foot, then left arm/right foot. A tremendous success was Tumbleweed Bowling, having kids correctly answer questions on the desert in order to try bowling over some cowboy cactus.
There was nest building, bats flying, a walk-through coral reef among over-sized ocean life and a wetland’s habitat to show the varied life forms that call it home. Kids learned woodland safety, answered wildlife trivia at the fishpond, and could stop and play a game of tic-tac-toe. A favorite photo spot was the shark cage with papier maché sharks circling overhead. Touchtables drew the crowds, offering skulls, bones, and pelts, and plenty of information in colorful displays and handouts.
The final table each week offered a quick, easy-to-complete craft for the kids to take home. Precut patterns and pieces let the kids show their individual creativity while keeping long lines from forming.
The outcome? Repeat visitors, requests from teachers and daycare workers for permission to use ideas, and many, many wonderful compliments from guests expecting a winter’s day out at the zoo and finding a bountiful bazaar of entertainment for the family.
And for the Docent Education Committee and the Pittsburgh Zoo Docents another record breaking participation. In all, 45 docents accumulated 988 hours, the slight decrease due to E3 running for one week less due to the early Easter holiday.
Tapping into the unknown talents of our new and veteran docents while focusing on building the confidence and honing the interactive skills of those who felt left out in face to face encounters with zoo visitors brought the Education Committee’s concept full circle. In encouraging each and every docent to expend the energy and enthusiasm needed to excel in educating and exciting zoo visitors, we envision excellence in future endeavors of the ever evolving Pittsburgh Zoo Docents.