The bright-yellow school bus door opened, and the happy squeals and chatter couldn’t be contained. On this sunny spring morning, more than 200 students from Tacoma’s Lister Elementary School were arriving at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium to finally meet some friends they have been learning about all year-long.
Animal friends, that is.
The kindergarteners in Ms. Kim’s class made a beeline to Penguin Point to see the black-and-white Magellanic penguins — which happen to be their classroom mascot.
“They eat fish!”
“I would name my penguin ‘hamster’,” kindergartner Kai said matter-of-factly.
Lister students are Wildlife Champions, a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and Metro Parks Tacoma that teaches kids empathy for wildlife through nature-based lessons. Kids in grades K-5 receive weekly classroom lessons, visit nearby Swan Creek Park, and participate in free field trips to Northwest Trek and Point Defiance Zoo.
Miss Kendra, AKA Kendra Vance, one of the zoo’s education program specialists, led the kindergarteners on their zoo adventure. Sam Hain is the other education program specialist working with Lister students. Vance shared interesting animal facts with the kindergarteners that day, and also had to answer some pretty imaginative questions.
“Do they (the penguins) make noises underwater?”
Short answer? Scientists think so.
If Vance didn’t know an answer, she promised to find out and relay the information during one of her next classroom visits. She meets Ms. Kim’s kindergarteners twice a week for 30-minute sessions, and also teaches second- and fourth graders at Lister. Once a month, every student at Lister also has an outdoor lesson at Swan Creek Park.
Inspiring curiosity, caring, and knowledge is what the Wildlife Champions program is about. Arlington Elementary in Tacoma was the first to experience the program (at times virtually during COVID) and it’s still going strong in its sixth year.
Lister started the program last fall and is currently being funded by a two-year grant, with the goal to lengthen it into another long-term partnership between the school and the Zoo, according to Liz Hines, community engagement coordinator at the Zoo.
“Building a partnership with staff, students and the surrounding community of each school makes all of us stronger and better for our students,” Hines said. The programs are unique to each of the schools, and even by classroom. “The curriculum is co-designed by TPS and Zoo staff to give our students the best opportunities to grow and learn in a supportive, nurturing environment.”
The well-rounded curriculum includes hands-on inquiry-based learning and incorporates Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which helps students learn science through core ideas, practices, and crosscutting concepts. They also learn Since Time Immemorial (STI) education, which is about tribal history, culture, and more. English Language Arts, and social/emotional learning standards also are part of the Wildlife Champions program.
“We focus on serving those who don’t have easy access to high-quality environmental education experiences, and it’s a program with empathy at its core,” Hines said. “The K-5 students explore their neighborhood park once a month and learn how to care for the environment and wildlife around them.”
The kids had been waiting since February to explore the zoo, because their initial trip was canceled due to snow. For most of the kids, this is their first zoo experience, Vance said. And it was exceptional, impressionable, and magical.
After the penguins, the kids visited the new Pacific Seas Aquarium. There, tiny hands touched the giant watery glass jelly globe. Bright eyes watched dozens of jellyfish parachute their bodies through the water, like silk dancing in wind. It was mesmerizing.
Hammerhead sharks and eagle rays swam above their heads, and giant crabs, twisting sea kelp, and googly-eyed fish gave them a glimpse into underwater worlds.
The Tidal Touch Zone was a hit, as the students got finger “hugs” from sea urchins and touched sea stars, sea cucumbers and anemones. “It feels sticky, kinda like gum,” said kindergartener Elijah as he touched a white sea anemone. A few seconds was enough, and he went to wash his hands. Another skill being taught.
The kids got giggly when they met the walruses, Balzak and Lakina. “It is a perfect day for swimming,” one student said. “Yes, it is,” Ms. Kim agreed. When the walruses started playing with a pink bucket provided by their care team, one child convinced the others it must be full of ice cream. They saw adorable puffins, silly seals, and the sea otters were playing with their food — frozen fish chunks.
It was getting to be about lunchtime for the kiddos, and most had been carrying brown bag sack lunches in their hands.
“What if you opened your lunch and found that frozen fish?” Ms. Kim asked the group. Student Brody stopped and considered it. His growling tummy may have influenced his answer:
“Maybe if it was cooked?”
Luckily for Brody and his classmates most of the kids enjoyed much tastier (for humans, at least) sandwiches and crackers to munch as they waited for the animal close encounters at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater to begin. Their feet needed a break, too.
The show continued to support the empathy portion of the Wildlife Champion program by letting the kids know that all the animals are treated with respect and nothing but “pawsitivity.” They get treats galore and can make their own choices about whether they want to participate.
Tilli the aardvark showed off her 12-inch tongue by licking her favorite vanilla yogurt from a see-through tube. A collective “ewww” arose from the crowd.
Clark the king vulture flew over their heads from one perch to the next, and the kids screamed in exhilaration. When the vulture walked across the stage, it was said to be “cuter than a turkey trot.”
The chickens — four fat hens and a rooster with a wild pom like a Kiss rock band wig on his head — had the kids laughing. And then they had to be quiet like a mouse (tall order with this crowd) when Jasper the Canada lynx came out showing off his sleek cat moves and giant fluffy paws.
“Running Wildlife Champions makes me proud to see what our next generation will be made up of — people who practice empathy and are curious about the world around them,” Vance said.
As the Lister students’ amazing adventures came to a close, the questions continued.
“What are their natural predators?”
“What does it eat?
“Why is Tilli so cute?”
These true Wildlife Champions were curious, caring and ready to learn.