Learning from Families with Woodland Park Zoo’s Nature Clubs


By Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo wants to connect children to nature, both at the zoo and out in the community. With a grant from Thrive by Five Washington’s Discoveries from the Field Fund, the education team had an opportunity to go off-grounds and learn from families who are less likely to be visiting the zoo about what activities they are already doing and what they would like to do in nature with their youngest children.
The intent was to create family programming that would build awareness of STEM and other school readiness skills that can be developed outdoors, as well as make it a fun, accessible and sustainable family activity.
Early in the project, partner agency Seattle Housing Authority and a Denise Louie Education Center Head Start site at Lake Washington collaborated to gather families in their communities. At these events, both adults and children were invited to “vote” on their favorites from a collection of photographs of children and families engaging in a variety of activities outdoors, such as children picking up worms, jumping in puddles or picking up shells on a beach.
In same-language groups, families then shared their impressions and reasoning – and quite a bit of laughter. Families talked about the places that felt safe and welcoming to them. Many shared activities that reminded them of childhood where they grew up: growing food, making toys and games from natural objects around them, enjoying climbing trees and the change of seasons. All are wonderful STEM skill building activities, but many activities they had not yet done with their own children (in part because of urban living).
Some of the pictures featured children interacting with animals, so zoo staff learned some of the wide cultural meanings that interacting with different animals might represent. As an animal visit is a popular component of many zoo outreach activities, this information will be used to tailor those choices.
All of these conversations informed the programming that Woodland Zoo will be piloting, initiating “Family Nature Clubs” based on the model from Children & Nature Network.
Families told us that public transportation and starting in a safe, familiar place was important, so Seattle Public Libraries was asked to partner. A zoo educator will join a group of families at a library branch that has easy access to a natural space to explore.
Families told us that having expensive outdoor tools and equipment was a barrier, so program materials will be limited to a few simple items that can fit in a backpack: magnifying glasses, books that could be borrowed from the library, recyclables and repurposed materials to create and explore with, and a first aid kit. After a short story and opening activity indoors, the group will head out and start gathering scavenger hunt items in egg cartons, or building catapults with sticks and rubber bands, or looking for signs of plant growth or animal activity.
Families told us that they wanted to get out more often (especially when the weather was nice) but it was more fun to do in groups. So, over each series of three sessions, zoo educators will be handing over information and tasks to adult family members and encouraging natural leaders who could keep the groups continuing to meet after the series ends.
The zoo will continue to listen to families, and make changes to programming along the way. We will also provide some support, connection to other clubs as they continue, and incentives – such as an end of summer celebration for all the Family Nature Clubs to connect at the zoo!