Petting animals is always a good time, especially when they aren’t animals you see every day. In fact, that’s one of Marshall Rief’s favorite parts about Riverside Discovery Center’s Zoo Day Camps.
“I just want to touch her,” he said, as zookeeper Sierra Spears held out Rhonda, the opossum.
Rief attended the nocturnal animals day camp on Tuesday, July 13. Zoo educator Kevin Plath said RDC has been doing day camps during the summer for some time, but in the zoo educator position, which he took on in May, he has been able to give the camps his own educational touch.
"I did design all three of our camps this year. I’m hoping to keep designing them in the foreseeable future,” he said. “I’m also excited to shape education in my own style here and just take it in to the next generation.”
Each summer has three different themed camps, all of which are meant to be an educational opportunity not only about animals but about the importance of conservation, which for Plath go hand-in-hand.
"The goal here is just to create a new generation who has fun caring about the planet,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons he selected the topic of nocturnal animals as a theme for one of the day camps. He said he wanted to show children that it was important to save all creatures, not just the cute ones.
“We (are trying to) build up that relationship again with nocturnal animals and the creepy, weird ones to make sure that they (the kids) know everything deserves to be protected, as opposed to just the poster child of conservation like pandas.”
Plath said that sometimes it’s a challenge, but the idea is to find a way to incorporate educational lessons into activities that keep kids entertained.
“The goal of a day camp is pretty much to seamlessly blend fun and a sense of conservation in a way that really impacts them,” he said. “We want to make sure that this has a lasting impact. … It’s easy to make a day camp that just feels like a bunch of games and then a tacked-on conservation message at the end. You want to really blend them.”
While the zoo day camps are meant for children ages six to 12, it has benefits for other ages too. RDC also has a Zoofari program for students ages 12 to 17, which allows them to volunteer at various zoo events, including the day camps. Plath said that between the day camps and Zoofari, RDC has great programs to introduce kids to the professional world of zoology.
“This is a great foot-in-the-door opportunity for zoo life. This segues directly into internships,” he said. “It’s great on a college application, and even if you don’t go into the zoo world, it lets you build up public speaking skills, childcare skills, all that.”
RDC Zoo Day Camps happen about two per month throughout the summer. The upcoming dates are July 20, Aug. 17 and Aug. 24. The camp lasts from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and costs $30 for members and $40 for non-members per child, per day. For more information, visit the zoo’s event on its Facebook page or call 308-630-6236.
The zoo will also be hosting two major events this weekend. Chimp-a-palooza will take place on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event is free, but regular admission applies. On Sunday, RDC will host Free Day at the Zoo, which includes free admission, games, activities, local entertainment and giveaways. The event runs from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.