Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Crikey! Engaging children in the (Australia) zoo experience

Whenever I choose an experience or event to attend, I always consider what is there for kids to do. I hate going to something, designed for children, that lacks adequate audience engagement. With my desire to persue a role in Public Programs, and possibly a Masters of Art Education in my future, I thought critiquing and reviewing my experiences would be a wise record to start. So, this post is my first official published review, though surprisingly not of a gallery or museum exhibit, but of an educational experience at a zoo.

I was excited probably more than Miss 5 to be going to not just any zoo but the Australia Zoo. Having experienced a few different zoos BC (Before Child), the Australia Zoo is quiet large and impressive in the animals they show. (Also from an Artist point of view you are always on the look out for source material, and as I am a painter of animals and birds, I was especially mindful of an opportunistic photo).

On the whole I was quiet impressed with the level of interactivity the Australia Zoo offers for children. I think the best section was Bindi's Bootcamp, right at the end of the zoo (see map here). This had a large enough area to cater for a large group of children, and enough activities to be substantial. As well, there was something for all ages from 5 - 12. My only criticism was the interactivity did rely on the ability to read to better participate though not a hindrance. A negative was this area was exposed to the elements and on the day I visited it did shower. Activities at Bindi's Bootcamp included:
  1. Animal crates with holes for children to put their hand through and guess the animal
  2. Guessing whose poo belonged to what animal (mulitple choice)
  3. Guessing whose dinner belonged to what animal
  4. A globe with animal silhouettes which could be matched to the country (The globe didn't turn, and the animals pieces didn't stay stuck to globe)
  5. Tipee/Caves for the littlies to play in
  6. A rock wall to climb along
  7. Peek-a-book boxes with animals inside (This could have been more interesting than just a photo of an animal)

Other activities included:
Bindi's Treehouse -This was a disappointment. Considering this was the drawcard for coming during the holidays as advertised on TV, there was nothing for the kids to actually do. There were two bad telescopes which were not easily reached by children as there were no steps, and nothing to do at the treehouse. There is definitely room for improving this experience.
Park Sculptures -Throughout the zoo there were bronze sculptures which acted as photo attractions and 'play' equipment for children. At one of the sculpture areas was a fossil dig. This is such as great idea, however it was not undercover, so on the day I attended it was wet sand and the interaction with this space was not an option, as well, there was no tools for children to use to dig.
Rides -There were some rides throughout the park of jumping castles, and the spinning teacups, as well as those pay your $2 to ride on those things you see in shopping centres. Rides are ok and good to break up the day for the kids, however for us, we had to explain to Miss 5 we came to the zoo to see the ANIMALS not to go on rides.
Public Programs: Live Talks and Demonstrations -These were very educational, and great to listen to as an adult though not targeted at children. Older children would have listened and picked up on things. Even posing questions to the audience ie children would make a difference in better engaging them.
Animal Encounters -Photographs with the Animals & Touching the Animals -This is another consideration for engagement in terms of physical interaction and tactile experience. 

In terms of what could be improved to increase the level of interactivity and engagement I have a few suggestions as I don't believe the zoo has maximised the potential in this area. For example;
  1. considering we are in the digital age, there was no use of technology by children or for children to engage with
  2. Children could go on an explorer/adventurer quest by following clues
  3. Headphones for animals sounds at suitable stations
  4. Touch screen monitors to engage in learning
  5. Even simply making the live talks interactive by asking the children questions
  6. What about a colouring in station or something with chalk like a communal wall.  
These suggested improvements do not have to be from an educational perspective rather increasing the fun and overall engagement, learning and interactivity experience.

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