The Texas Zoo is keeping kids engaged in education this spring break through their camps and classes.
Monday, Katlyn Irwin, 27, the zoo’s education director, led a roomful of campers through a series of educational lessons. Despite using their spring break to learn, of all things, the campers, ranging in age from 5-12, excitedly raised their hands and shouted out answers to Irwin’s questions.
When Irwin began to teach the kids about endangered animals, she brought out the pelt of an endangered red wolf. Irwin asked the campers if they knew what poaching was, and every hand in the room shot up.
Nine-year-old Gerald Pargmann wondered if it meant they were killed for their fur.
“Kind of,” Irwin said.
“Hunted?” Gerald’s twin sister Syndey asked.
“Yes!” Irwin said, and when she told the campers what their reward was for getting the question right, their faces lit up. Each kid got to touch the pelt, feeling the fur on their skin. Then they got to feel an ocelot pelt, a horned owl feather, a turtle shell, deer skull, ostrich egg and more.
Irwin, who recently took over the zoo’s education department, is her stamp on it by transforming leaving the zoo’s spring break camp. She’s done this by designing engaging classes that both educate and keep camps engaged and having fun. The camp features both time in the classroom and out in the zoo with the animals, and has different lessons in the morning and afternoons for kids in a wide age range, Irwin said.
Irwin, who became the education director in November, said she first attended camp at the zoo when she was just 4 years old, and the then were engaging like they are camps today. Unfortunately, in recent years they’ve become “repetitive,” she said, and she’s made it her her goal to bring the engagement back.
“We try not to have many lull periods,” Irwin said. “In the morning we have a lot more little ones … so it’s a lot coloring, a lot of drawing, a lot of very tactile learning versus the afternoon where it’s a lot of play learning.”
The different learning styles Irwin employs are because the younger camps are “learning to read,” while the older campers are “reading to learn.”
Because of this, when the younger campers leave in the afternoon, the lessons drop the drawing and coloring and become more interactive with games and informative talks about the wants and needs of the zoo animals and what the zoo does to help and protect them.
For a lesson about animal enrichment, zoo staff brought in a macaw named Lucy that, out of boredom, began plucking her own feathers until her underside and wings were completely bald, Megan Meyer, an educator at the zoo, said.
“Because of that, we have to make sure we give her extra stimulation, extra enrichment, extra human bonding time to help break this habit that she’s endured because of the lack of enrichment,” Meyer said.
The staff also demonstrated animal feeding to the children. When interim zoo director Cari Wittenborn was feeding Jax the jaguar, she explained to the campers how they use the feeding opportunity to examine the powerful cat’s stomach, legs and teeth. She also explained how they have to take care when feeding the jaguars to ensure Jax finishes his food first, because the other jaguar in the pen will chase Jax away from his food if she finishes first.
Irwin worked briefly as a teacher, and she credited that education background with teaching her how to run an engaging camp.
“When I was teaching camp in 2018, I had no idea,” she said. “I was just kind of like, ‘OK, this is what we’re doing!’ I wasn’t trying to bounce back and forth between the different learning styles.”
She also noted that she’s now friends with teachers and has a support group of them. Now, when she runs a camp she sends the information taught to the campers to her teacher friends and gets feedback from them about what the kids need to know and need to develop a deeper understanding of.
The zoo is also entering what Irwin called “field trip season,” and she works to customize those field trips to the needs of each teacher that comes to the zoo.
“I ask them if they need to know about adaptations, about habitat,” she said. “What about the animals to you want to learn about? Or is it just something fun, where the kids get to meet a rabbit?”
The zoo’s spring break camp will run until Friday, Irwin said. Each day will have a different focus, whether that’s mammals, reptiles or birds.