Today was a perfect July day at the zoo, sunny and warm with gently ocean breezes to keep things tolerable. The animals were active and playful. We watched the polar bears frolic in the cool water of their enclosure—so close you could almost touch them through the clear Plexiglas barrier.
I watched the animals, thinking about how the zoo personnel was careful to point out the ways they put the animals’ well being and health ahead of the visitors’ desires to take the perfect picture and get that close-up look. I heard a similar message from the tour bus driver, the panda keeper, and the sea lion show trainer: these are wild animals, they are in this zoo so we can learn to take better care of them to ensure their continued existence. The zoo is a place for learning.
I also did a lot of kid watching today. And while there were usual instances of whining and demanding, there were also many kids fascinated and engaged watching the animals. I observed some little boys near the polar bears for quite a while. They stayed right up next to the glass where a polar bear was enjoying chewing on a bone right on the other side. As the bear dunked under the water against the glass, the boys would run their hands against their side of the glass as though they were petting the bear. As the bear emerged from the water, the boys reached their faces up alongside the bear’s. A crowd formed with many adults attempting to get a close-up portrait of that bear—or line their own child alongside the bear for that illusion photo of their child with the bear. You could feel and hear the frustration of those adults, wanting the kids to move out of the way. After ten minutes or so, the parents of the boys seemed to catch on to the frustration of the crowd and urged the boys away from the glass so others could have a turn.
I understand the frustration of the adults waiting for the boys to move away. And I understand the boys’ fascination with the bears. I find myself thinking about how their physical interaction supported their appreciation of the bears…and how that may impact their future actions in the world. If they had to stand back and watch quietly from afar, would they still find polar bears interesting and want to know more about them? I’m also fascinated by the physical structure of the zoo and how that structure creates intimacy and relationships with the animals.
How can I think more carefully about the structures in my classroom to invite engagement and interaction rather than passive compliance? Zoos and classrooms—I have a lot to think about!