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Wildlife Champions Kick Off

girl speaking at wildlife assemblyPuffins! Barn owls! Moon jellies! There was a parade of animals at Tacoma Public School’s Arlington Elementary on September 30, 2019 – not literally, but as class mascots for a new crop of Wildlife Champions. The school was kicking off year two of the science-in-nature partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Northwest Trek, Tacoma Nature Center and Metro Arts, and the assembly had all the passion for nature you could want – plus some special guests.

“We pledge to show empathy to plants, animals and each other,” chanted the 383 students from wide-eyed kindergarteners to excited fifth-graders. Teachers joined in too. Created jointly by teachers and Zoo staff at the end of last year, the pledge goes on to sum up the three-year Wildlife Champions project: Create empathy for wildlife, share science learning and protect local nature.

Girl digging in park
An Arlington student plants camas bulbs as part of a Wildlife Champions lesson in Oak Tree Park.

Last year – the initial year of the project – staff from the Zoo, Northwest Trek and Metro Arts co-taught weekly nature science lessons with Arlington teachers for each school class: inside, out in the school yard and in nearby Oak Tree Park. Students learned everything from Native American culture to plant biology, did activities from wind-socks to bulb planting, and hit learning targets from science and math to art and music.

And while empathy is hard to measure, staff can definitely see it happening in practice.

“Kids are more likely to rescue a spider and take it outside, teachers are getting excited about nature, and everyone is really proud of their local park,” says coordinator Liz Hines, one of the two Zoo staff working full-time at Arlington on the project.

zookeeper with owl at assembly
Zookeeper Suzanne Akerman holds up an owl at the Wildlife Champions assembly at Arlington Elementary, Tacoma.

This year, teachers will take on half the lessons themselves, says Hines, including discussion and curriculum learning. Wildlife Champions staff will facilitate the related hands-on activities. By the final year, Arlington staff will be fully leading the program, finessing the curriculum and taking it into the future.

For now, though, the assembly was exciting enough. As each class brought a banner of their animal mascot up to the microphone, students told cool animal facts.
And Zoo staff presented special guests: an armadillo, an owl, a boa and a chicken, to general delight.

Alan Varsik, Metro Parks Tacoma’s director of Zoological and Environmental Education, was also present – and delighted.

“We’re so proud of this amazing, collaborative program,” he said. “Wildlife Champions is already creating a generation of young people who are passionate about wildlife and care for nature.”

kids at wildlife assembly
Reciting the wildlife pledge at the Wildlife Champions kickoff assembly, Sept. 2019.