From the Desk of Dan Ashe

The Value of Out-of-School Learning in AZA Facilities

Guest blog written by Rachael Rost, AZA Hero; Education Specialist, Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center

In our fast-paced technological society consumed by social media, internet memes, celebrity gossip, and television shows, one could argue that the outdoor childhood of the past has seemingly vanished for many kids in the United States and beyond. When people spend more time focusing on the color of a dress than the colors of fall, we know that nature has dropped from the priority list of many modern families. However, with the 2018 IPCC report warning that we have twelve years to counter the devastating effects of climate change, environmental education and experience outdoors must take precedence again. The future of our planet relies on it.

While the outlook of our world is daunting, the work that is being done by AZA-accredited institutions is helping to combat our nature-deficit culture and create environmentally-literate citizens. With 195 million annual visitors, including 12 million student learners on field trips, the impact of AZA programming is important and wide-reaching. Yet, it is not just field trips that connect students to biodiversity and conservation. There are many out-of-school learning opportunities in AZA facilities, such as adventure camps and after-school clubs, that provide children with an even deeper relationship to the natural world.

Campers with Snake at Topeka Zoo

Photo Credit: Megan Withiam

As the Education Specialist at the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center, I have supervised our out-of-school programming for nearly six years. Over the course of my career, I continually unmask yet another benefit that environmental education provides and am constantly reminded of the importance of our work. We are not just in this field to create a fun animal experience for guests; our goal is to develop individuals, particularly children, into future environmental leaders. They will be the politicians, businesspeople, scientists, and informed citizenry who inherit this fragmented planet. What does the outlook of our environment look like if the next generation does not put down the controller to experience the outdoors? If they do not connect to the environment, how will they develop a drive to protect it?

With this goal in mind, our camp and club programs are designed in such a way that students are introduced to nature concepts in a hands-on and engaging manner. From up-close behind-the-scenes encounters to live animal programs, unstructured nature play to interactive conservation games, these experiences provide the time and setting necessary for students to learn about the environment, its beautiful diversity, and age-appropriate ways to protect it. Our programs focus great energy into involving the student in their own learning, getting to know each child on a personal level, and blending what we teach in with current social norms.

The value of camps and clubs at AZA-accredited institutions goes beyond environmental education; it reaches these students on a personal level. I have seen our out-of-school programming transform the lives of many students. From meeting a life-long best friend in camp to “finally finding a place to fit in” to spending hours seining a wetland, these experiences improve social skills and have positive effects on emotional, mental, and physical health. Additionally, these opportunities allow students to expand their analytical and communication skills to learn that science is not scary and can be really fun! Through a variety of learning techniques, such as citizen science, inquiry-based research, and hands-on work experience, groups are connected to the natural world while creating a network and culture of like-minded peers. One high school senior recently reflected that she learned “more about science in her years of teen camp than all of high school.” What a deeply rewarding thing to hear.

Campers at Topeka Zoo

Photo Credit: Kate Cooley

I could write pages of inspiring, hilarious, and heartfelt stories of children who came to a club meeting or week of camp, found their sense of place, and never looked back. My office is filled with artwork, thank you notes, photos, and one homemade movie given to me by students whose lives were changed due to their out-of-school zoo experiences. I have cried with these children when they were sad, cheered in victory as we won a group game, led numerous rainy-day conga lines, and connected with them in meaningful ways. There are several teens lined up “to take my job someday” and many more students who want to work in this field when they grow up. Camps and clubs are an important outlet to provide environmental education and the impact they have can be profound. In these programs, we are developing future environmental warriors who are equipped with the skills and drive necessary to create positive change. Thank you to zoo and aquarium staff around the nation and world who work with students in out-of-school learning opportunities. Now, more than ever, your work is vital to the health of our planet and its future leaders.


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