Wild About Wildlife is bringing summer fun into kids’ homes through a mix of animal observations, educational lessons, experiments, and games. This free virtual summer camp was created by Manatee Lagoon and Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Palm Beach County, with the help of other partnering organizations.
The camp’s purpose is to educate kids ages six to nine who are not able to attend summer camps due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We came up with the sessions that were going to be relevant to topics in environmental education,” Hannah Campbell, the director of education at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, said. “We take these broad, scientific realms … break them down and ask ourselves ‘okay, what’s fun?’”
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Campbell said the topics chosen translate into backyard adventures, such as biology sessions through the platform iNaturalist. Campers become citizen scientists by using the app or printable worksheets to identify and log different organisms they find. The camp’s half-day curriculum also includes live sessions, where kids get to learn about and observe various animals.
“They are right there live with the teaching scientist in front of these animals,” Campbell said. “In our case at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, right in front of a sea turtle patient. They can really see the sea turtles ... ask questions about them and then learn whatever that topic at hand is.”
These sessions are complemented by activities and interactive posts on Google Classroom. Campbell said the platform has a social media feel to it, where campers can comment on each other's posts or post about something they learned that day. She said the goal was to not only have them engage with the camp educators, but also have the feeling they would normally get at an in-person camp.
“There’s a lot of kids that unfortunately are falling behind in their respective grade levels just because of lack of engagement,” Campbell said. “Although there are inherent challenges in the virtual and digital space [when] creating those social, emotional connections, I think that this virtual summer camp is as close as we can get.”
The camp does not allow campers’ microphones or cameras to be on during live sessions, but they can still interact via a chat box. Brittany DiLoreto, the communication specialist at Manatee Lagoon, said making it user friendly was a priority. This way parents are not actively needed during the sessions. DiLoreto said flexibility within the curriculum was also important, as the organizations hoped to make families’ lives easier during the pandemic.
“Even if you miss a live session or you aren’t doing an activity at that exact time cause you have another commitment, [the activities] live in the classroom throughout the whole week,” she said. “You can always go back and rewatch something and do it later on.”
Valerie Owens registered her daughter Riley for all of June. She said that even if there wasn’t a pandemic, she would still do the camp virtually. She appreciates the convenience and flexibility of not having to drop off Riley at a specific location and time.
“We’re getting the same information and she’s interacting, but we can still go to the beach, we can still go to the park … so she’s not trapped in any one location,” Owens said. “Because she can pick and choose what she’s doing, it’s actually really helpful for us because we are a very busy family.”
Owens also enjoys that although she is not needed for the activities, she can spend time with Riley and do them together. Both she and her adult son end up learning as well. Owens’ favorite part is the connection Riley forms with these community organizations.
“Because it’s local, we aren’t talking about the Cincinnati Zoo … We’re talking about local places that are doing great things for the community,” she said. “It brings it back to making it real for her.”
Although the original goal was to serve Palm Beach residents, DiLoreto said the camp has been successful not only countywide, but also nationally. Within days of opening registration for June, all the spots were filled. This large public interest led to the doubling of capacity for the upcoming months. DiLoreto said there’s still a limit, in order to ensure engagement and interaction amongst the campers and staff.
“We’re definitely open to the possibility of continuing virtual learning past the summer months, if it’s needed and if there’s the interest,” DiLoreto said. “It’s definitely top of mind for us to make sure we’re finding new ways to stay engaged and to help spread our mission.”
Lion Country Safari and the Palm Beach Zoo are the educating partners for June. Sessions in July will include content from Zoo Miami and the Museum of Discovery and Science. For more information on how to register or to view the camp's curriculum, visit Manatee Lagoon’s website.