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More than a field trip

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, communications 
with Gypsy Darrow, educator at Kent Public Schools

Connecting people with their love for animals occupies the core of who we are. Woodland Park Zoo serves the diverse communities of Seattle and King County through an inclusive approach to lifelong learning. We are dedicated to making our programs accessible and relevant for all community members. Our wide range of initiatives and outreach programs provide opportunities to learn about and connect with animals. While many of our visitors come from all over the country (and even the world) to adventure through our 92 acres—it is our honor and privilege to also serve our local schools and learning programs. The zoo’s Learning and Innovation department works with educators from around Puget Sound to introduce their classrooms to endangered species, dive into conservation actions, wander our pathways and explore our biomes.

For many kids, a field trip to Woodland Park Zoo is not only their first interaction with the zoo itself, but brings a feeling of community and belonging. We know the zoo is an important benchmark in the lives of many children, but in speaking with teachers we learn just how important equitable access to nature is—and what it can accomplish for all of us.

We asked Gypsy Darrow, a fifth grade educator at Millennium Elementary, (Kent School District) to share her experiences in bringing her classroom to the zoo, and why it matters.

Millennium Elementary qualifies for the zoo’s School-to-Zoo funding (for schools in King County with 30% or more students receiving free or reduced-rate lunches), which provides free zoo admission for students, teachers and chaperones as well as subsidized bus transportation to the zoo. This program is made possible in large part thanks to the generosity of King County voters who approved the King County Parks Levy in 2013. A renewal of the Parks Levy will be on King County ballots this August.

My name is Gypsy Darrow and I have taught fifth grade at Millennium Elementary school for five years. We are a Title I school, located in Kent, WA. Most Millennium students qualify for free or reduced lunch and we have one of the highest ELL (English Language Learner) populations in one of the largest Washington State districts. I am providing this background because it is proven that socio-economic disparities are directly related to academic achievement levels. However, when students are provided with opportunities to make meaning through engaging activities and apply classroom learning to real world situations, the disparity is reduced. Providing children with an opportunity to visit the zoo and to make connections to ecosystems, environmental situations, and current events, help to reduce the inequities between students who attend schools in lower income regions and those in more affluent neighborhoods. 

I have had the honor of working with the Woodland Park Zoo for the past three years to provide my students an opportunity to expand their knowledge through educational programs through the zoo. Over the past three years, I have benefited from the training by the WPZ education department and I have been able to provide my kids quality Problem Based Learning (PBL) opportunities. This program has allowed my children to scaffold to higher levels of understanding by researching solutions for real world conservation problems. As a result, their abilities to ask questions, research information, and apply critical thinking skills have increased dramatically.

Typically, we prepare for a trip to the zoo by learning about ecosystems. Then we use WPZ materials to introduce the problem of endangered species. We spend time researching why animals are threatened and engage in researching possible solutions for this problem. The visit to the zoo allows children to discover connections between the animals they see, the designs of the habitats, and the information posted at the exhibits to what they have learned in class. This is an engaging and fun experience for them, and it provides them with a way to make connections to what they have been studying. After the zoo visit, students are typically excited to share what they have discovered, and we have several meaningful discussions that allow them to share their thoughts and new understandings. This supports their ability to think critically and it also supports language acquisition, by providing them with opportunities to utilize new vocabulary. The culminating project is an opportunity for synthesis and students have an opportunity to utilize all these skills to create and explain their solution through a creative project.

I have clearly noticed academic improvements of my students who engage in this hands-on learning experience. However, this is not the most important reason that I love this program. Indeed, the main reason that I appreciate this program, is because I know that visiting the zoo and exploring nature is important for all children. The kids I teach, do not have this opportunity. Most of my kids live in apartment complexes with parents who work multiple jobs to pay for rent and food. There is not a lot of disposable income or extra time to make a trip into Seattle and visit the zoo. In fact, out of 26 students, only one of my students had been to the zoo, prior to our field trip. We take for granted that all kids have these enrichment activities with their families. The truth is, many cannot afford the zoo and even trips to parks are rare.

If I assign my students to play outside, many will answer they are not allowed to because it’s not safe. They need to stay inside until their parents get home, which is after dark. Once I asked a student who was taking pictures of everything we saw at the zoo, if he would like to put down the camera and just look at the animals. He told me that nobody in his family had ever been to the zoo and they had asked him to take lots of pictures of everything he saw, so they could see it too. Effectively, our field trip provided an opportunity for him to explore the zoo and to share the experience with his whole family. Ultimately, though I appreciate how the zoo experience helps my kids improve academically, I really love it because it allows my kids an opportunity to experience an activity that all kids should be able participate in. Kids are naturally curious, and they love animals. The zoo provides a fun, safe place to make new discoveries and to see things that they have only seen in books or on TV. To sum this all up in three words, I would simply say what my kids said after the field trip, “Best day ever!”

Woodland Park Zoo believes everyone in King County has the right to experience parks and nature. The King County Parks Levy on the August ballot will provide environmental education programming for King County students, preserve forests and open space and increase free admission programs at the zoo.

Join Woodland Park Zoo and support the King County Parks Levy on your August ballot so that we can continue to protect and preserve thousands of acres of forests and open space throughout the county. Every kid in King County deserves fun and safe places to play in nature. Please join us in making that a reality by voting to approve the King County Parks Levy this August.