BURLINGTON, Ky. - In kindergarten, it's not uncommon for children to read about animals. But it's a whole different story to actually read to them, especially when they're wild critters, compliments of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
Students from Lynn Hallenberg's kindergarten class at Stephens Elementary in Burlington recently received a visit from the zoo's Educational Outreach Program. This group brings animals from the zoo's interpretive collection to schools to give children a chance to connect with them and learn about conservation. This year marks the 40th anniversary for the program.
During the sessions, students broke into small groups where they took turns gleefully reading to one of four listeners: Crystal the ball python, Roberta the red-footed tortoise, Rose the screaming hairy armadillo, and Sienna the spotted turtle. Outreach instructor Joan Hall said she came up with the idea while attending Oakland University to be a Human-Animal Intervention Specialist.
"During the coursework, I found out about dogs who 'read' with children in schools and thought, 'Why not our Cincinnati Zoo animals?' " she said. "We piloted the program in four different classes in four different schools and found it so profoundly successful."
Besides inspiring little ones on their literacy journey, Hall said, seeing the animals up close helps kids connect the natural world to people. She said some children may not get to the zoo, so the program essentially brings the animals to them, fostering their "close enough to care" mission. She said animals from all classes are part of their interpretive collection, including birds, insects, mammals and reptiles, with two requirements: they must be small enough to transport and they must have the right temperament for the job.
"These guys had to audition to understand they could be in a spot where there is some movement, some pages will be turned," she said. "So all of the animals that work with us in this program have auditioned for it and they're thriving."
Having the animals interact with children provides valuable enrichment for both species, Hall said. She instructs children to watch the animals and to let her know if they look stressed or overly tired so she can give them a break.
As Hall sat on a chair with Rose the screaming hairy armadillo nestled in her lap, Americore outreach member Christy Hardwick sat on the floor with three kindergartners holding Crystal the python.
"She's super active today," Hardwick said as the snake continuously slithered through her arms.
While some of the kids couldn't wait to touch Crystal, others seemed a bit more hesitant.
Hall said it's very common for children to be fearful of animals they haven't encountered, but bringing them into a safe setting, reading to the animals and allowing children to touch them helps dispel any trepidation.
"They're not only working toward a goal of helping the animal feel safer, they're also working toward the goal of being a better reader," she said.
Hebron resident and parent Kathy McGlasson looked on as children patiently read to Crystal, then showed the python the corresponding pictures.
"The kids love it," she said. "They're very calm and gentle; they love these animals. It's good for their self-esteem and growth. It helps calm them down and teaches them the responsibility of being with real animals."
The zoo outreach employs three full-time instructors who visit schools throughout the Tri-State five days a week from September to June. For the past 40 years, Frisch's has enthusiastically helped sponsor the program. Frisch's executive vice president of marketing, Anne Meija, said the partnership falls perfectly in line with the restaurant group's core mission of helping strengthen and give back to the community.
"It's phenomenal, because there's so many children in the Cincinnati area that don't get to go to the zoo and don't get to see how wonderful it is," she said. "So decades ago the zoo came up with this idea for outreach and Frisch's made sure for all these years that (it's received) funding from us. I think it's wonderful because they're able to open kids' eyes to the bigger world of animals in a way that might not be possible for kids otherwise."
Even after countless visits to schools, Hall said, she's still moved by some of the children's reactions to their animal encounters.
"One little girl said, 'Look, Rose is looking right at me. She really likes me!' " she said. "It's just so sweet."