Nurture The Curiosity Of Children With Special Needs
Come and Discover: A Summer Camp Experience at the St. Louis Zoo
Jo Anne Travis
St. Louis Zoo. Saint Louis, MO
Imagine being a parent and dressing up like an animal, to the delight of your child. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Now you see what we use as an “icebreaker” on the first day of “Come and Discover”, our three morning summer camp program at the St. Louis Zoo for children with special needs.
Even though we request parent information about each child’s needs and educational diagnosis, we don’t really know our group’s abilities and strengths until we meet them the first day, so we need to “be flexible”. However, we have learned from four years of experience always to have more material, at many different levels, than we could possibly use. The basic docent bag of tricks includes biofacts, pictures, animal information, and live animals. For this program we have added costumes, playdough (available all the time for any child or adult who needs it), puppets, and music. The playdough is homemade and is given to each child on the first day of class. All art projects can be successfully created and completed by anyone, and the parents love to help! Each year we have provided a journal for each child’s pictorial record of his experience at camp. We have always taken pictures of the children as they are involved in the various activities. These are given out on the second and third day for inclusion in their journals (one hour developing or a digital camera make this possible). We also decorate sunvisors to wear out on the zoo grounds.
In St. Louis we are fortunate to have a children’s zoo that cooperates with the education department and docent organization by allowing access to their keepers and providing this group with a behind the scenes tour. This is in addition to the child oriented exhibits and animal contact opportunities which are a standard part of a visit to our children’s zoo. Our first day’s focus is on this area, and our snack resembles animal food. For instance, we have served cut up fruit similar to marmoset food, “froggy food” such as modified “gorp” and fruit juice like the nectar our lorikeets drink. A highlight of this day is feeding enrichment to our fennec foxes and meerkats (crickets enclosed in toilet paper tubes). This is an activity which we repeat every year because of the squeals of delight from children, parents, and animals.
The second day we focus on two animal areas, and finish the day observing sea lion feeding. Everyone always enjoys watching the sea lions as they catch a fish thrown by the keeper and swallow it whole. We serve a picnic snack that day in the sea lion area. We always visit the primates, because the children like seeing them. The second area we visit is one where they can experience the smells and/or sounds of the animals.
The third day we save for “wrap up”. We present several programs that utilize story telling, puppets and an adult costume. Live animals are also part of these programs. On that day we need to finish craft projects and take each child to see his favorite zoo animal. At the end of this day a certificate of participation is given to each child. This is standard procedure for summer programs at the St. Louis Zoo. Pictures taken the last day are mailed to the children, which extends the experience and gives them the pleasure of receiving their own mail.
Since the weather in St. Louis is unpredictable at best, we always have a full day of activities ready to use in case of inclement weather. At the end of the first day we talk to the parents about starting class earlier the next day, when we will be outside the whole day, to avoid the heat and the crowds.
To enjoy this program most, make it yours! We’ve given you some suggestions, but the beauty of this program is that there is no set agenda, such as animal classification. It’s about discovery. If you like to sing, include lots of music. There are many craft projects which turn out well no matter how well they are done. Think about it, and come and discover.
Students With Special Needs
Have A Touching Experience In A Zoo Classroom
Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, AZ
Teaching children with special needs is rewarding for both the children and the volunteers. The children enjoy touching and learning about live zoo animals. The volunteers enjoy excited smiles, questions that gush out and teacher comments like “I have never heard him talk so much before”, “I didn’t believe they would stay interested for 45 minutes”, and “They are glued to their chairs”! This year we had 777 students attend the Special Needs Program.
The Phoenix Zoo Special Needs Program originated in 1980 with the Animal Families Program. After several years, we discovered teachers were bringing the same students to this program three years in a row (the length of time Arizona Special Ed teachers have the same class.). So, we added a program about Arizona’s desert animals.
Both programs are available to children and adults with any handicap. This includes all levels of retardation including profound, severe physical disabilities – many of which require the use of a wheelchair, deafness, emotional problems, attention deficit disorder, language disability and learning disability. We will provide a program designed for any disability group and we will not eliminate anyone because of the severity of their handicap. Both are sensory motor programs because that is how our students are learning. We try to include as many sensory motor experiences as possible like: smelling flowers to show how animals smell to find food, tasting honey the bees make, moving like a snake, feeling feathers and jumping like a kangaroo rat.
Our programs are given on Monday mornings at 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. by reservation only and they last 45 minutes each. In the beginning, we were concerned about having such a long program. But, we discovered that with the teaching tools and live animals we use, the children had no trouble staying interested. Twelve to fifteen students in a program is good because we can fit them into one row which is ideal for passing. Students sit in chairs, instead of in a circle on a carpet on the floor, because the chair becomes their territory and they will stay there and not get up and move around. Volunteers are given a basic program written for educable students and they adjust the concepts and vocabulary to the ability of the children in the class. This is an easy task for any mother who has had 3 children several years apart in age. In fact, mothers make the best volunteers.
Our first program was the Animal Families Program. It emphasizes the body covering of five animal families: amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds and mammals. We use posters made by a volunteer who used to work for Disney Studios. These posters picture animals in each group and we also have live animals that they can touch.
We have used a tiger salamander, frog, box turtle, desert tortoise, snake, walking stick, hissing cockroach, white winged dove, hedgehog, chicken, goat and rabbit. Teachers request we use as many animals as possible. We also use artifacts and we show bird pictures and play taped bird calls. We were astounded to find this is one of the most popular parts of the Animal Families Program. The children are always totally attentive and quiet. That is partly because they are interested and partly because these children cannot do two things at once. They either talk or they listen but they can’t do both at the same time.
Then we added the Desert Animals Program which features birds and animals of the desert, poisonous Arizona animals and teaches desert survival (every year someone dies in the extreme temperatures of the Arizona desert). The animals we use are a quail, big horned owl, kestrel, snake, tarantula, desert tortoise, prairie dog, kangaroo rat, spiny tail lizard, scorpion and black widow spider.
We asked permission from The Phoenix Zoo to make one change in language. For our programs we refer to venomous animals as poisonous because children understand the danger of poison and we cannot teach them the meaning of venomous in 45 minutes.
Holding Childrens Attention
As soon as the children see us in our uniform they recognize us as an authority figure. We must maintain that relationship by taking charge. We ask all students to come up to the door of the classroom so we can tell them something important. We wait until everyone including adults is quiet and looking at us. Then we tell them, “There are live, wild animals in the room. They are either in cages or tied to posts. Please keep your hands in your laps and your voices quiet (we lower ours at this point so they have to strain to listen). We don’t want to frighten the animals because if they get frightened, we will have to take them back to their cages and you won’t get to see them”.
We have taken control, set the boundaries for behavior and they are paying attention to us as a group. They are eager to cooperate because they want to see the animals. Doing this opening and giving the program properly is crucial to holding their attention.
It is nice if you have a quiet, carpeted room with few distractions. If adults become too talkative, we look at them, just like we do the children, until they notice us and are quiet. Sometimes at the door, we ask the adults to be quiet and give the children permission to ask questions. Good delivery is important. Use simple declarative sentences. Vary the tone of your voice, be dramatic and keep eye contact.
When working with children who have difficulty listening and paying attention, it is best to give them only one thing to pay attention to. Therefore, we have only one volunteer talking in front of the room at a time. If she needs help holding something, another volunteer moves up quietly but does not talk. When the presentation is over, the presenter and other volunteers pass artifacts and animals. This gives them a chance to talk to individual children and answer questions. When changing from one presenter to another, we do not use volunteers’ names but keep the children’s attention on the animals by saying “Now we are going to talk about insects” or whatever is appropriate.
Every time a child has to change his focus, we are in danger of losing his attention. With this method, the children stay focused.
Many of our children have multiple handicaps and severe disabilities. We had one boy in a wheelchair hooked up to IVs with two attendants. We had an emotionally disturbed child who would not go in an unfamiliar room because of experiences he had when institutionalized. We had students with progeria, the rapidly aging disease.
We ask teachers to identify highly disturbed or aggressive youngsters and they are seated at the end of the row where teachers can remove them if necessary. We give special attention to these youngsters when touching live animals.
Teachers regularly tell us they were relieved and appreciative that the volunteers gave the program at the right level for their students and did not talk down to them.
For a child with a handicap, touching a live, wild animal is more significant than you might think. If you are
already working with children at a zoo, you are probably familiar with 2 finger touching and petting. That is the
method we use. We always pass artifacts, such as the snakeskin, before the live animal, such as the snake. It
helps children become familiar with the feel of the snake and makes touching a live one less threatening. One
volunteer can take the artifact, but we always have 2 volunteers accompany a live animal. One holds the animal
and the other volunteer watches the child and helps with touching when necessary. It is important to realize that
those who do not want to touch need more of your time than those that do. never say, “You don’t have to
touch it” as that gives them an excuse not to try. Do say, just look at it and I’ll show you its eyes, etc. If you
are calm and take your time, their hand will start creeping toward the animal and they will frequently touch the
skin with a finger. What is important about this? The child has overcome a fear! He feels successful and is
therefore more likely to face his next fear successfully. He is not just touching an animal, he is preparing for
If we have a large group, we don’t want 14 students to sit idle while we show an animal to one student so, we
“double pass”. We can pass the scorpion and the black widow spider at the same time with one volunteer starting at
each end of the row.
Volunteers And Students Learn And Have Fun
Volunteers become intensely loyal to this program. Some have been in the program for over 15 years. We recently
had a retired vascular surgeon join us. It was the only zoo program he was interested in. Like our other volunteers,
he loves giving something special to children who are special.
Every student learns something. Profoundly handicapped children learn what its like to be outdoors, have breezes
touch their face, smell plants and trees, feel the movement of people around them, hear sounds and try to figure out
where they are coming from or hear a word that suddenly has meaning for them.
Other students learn the joy of anticipation, the challenge of touching something that moves and the feeling of
success when they do it, the wonder at the sounds animals make and the fun of being curious and wanting to
talk and ask questions when normally they are quiet.
Teach children with special needs.
Experience the joy!