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Inviting Myself To ‘Hang Out’ With Kindergarteners

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Education | Volunteering

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


This past Tuesday, with only about 1,200 people expected to come to the Aquarium of the Pacific, based on our projections, I decided to attach myself to a group of kindergarteners from St. James Elementary School in Torrance to give them a personalized tour for the morning portion of their day visiting us.

Winter is one of our slower times of year, when we really have an opportunity to spend time with our guests, and 900 of those expected on this particular day were school children and their chaperones. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to share ideas and information with as many of the youngsters as I could.

The St. James children, dressed in their school uniforms, were a real joy. I first encountered them as they entered the Aquarium, when I went up to introduce myself to one of their chaperones, who was a teacher with a schedule of activities in her hand.

The first stop on her list of things to do was to visit our waves gallery, where I told the children about wind waves, which are caused by storms out in the ocean, and tsunami waves, created by earthquakes, landslides, and the like.

I introduced myself at the wave machine, and asked them how they were doing. I got a lot of “okays” and “great” out of them, and then a small voice queried, “and how are you?” I must say, they were a very polite and respectful bunch!

Despite their young ages, the children appeared to be extremely interested in the wave machine, which showed the difference between the two types of waves in terms of how they act in deep water and what happens when they crash up on the shore.

When I told them that the water doesn’t really move, but rather it is energy that passes through the ocean and causes the waves to come up on shore, they really seemed to understand, even though it is a somewhat difficult concept for little ones to grasp.

Of course, they really enjoyed petting the little round rays (Urobatis halleri) we have in that gallery, where I helped out one of the chaperones, a mom who wanted pictures of the children so that you could see their faces. From the guest side of the exhibit, all she could get were their backs. Hence, I took her camera and went to the other side of the exhibit, which is where we stand when we are staffing that station. Ed was there, giving information on these creatures, and took some shots of eager children touching the rays. The mom was grateful and thanked me profusely for the help.

The next stop on the St. James list was Blue Cavern, where I told the children about the giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas), and the halibut (Hippoglossus Stenolepsis), among others. They could not believe the size of the bass, and were quite distressed to learn that they are endangered. (Well, I had to tell them that we didn’t have a lot of them left in the ocean, as they didn’t know what “endangered” means.)

The halibut fascinated them also, partly because of its flat shape and because it was blending in so well with the pebbles on the bottom of the exhibit that it was a little difficult for them to see it. They couldn’t believe it when I told them that it is born with an eye on each side of its head, and then one eye moves through the head to get to the side that ultimately becomes the top of the fish. Amazing concept, I must say!

Sharks were next on their schedule of things to see, all before the 10:30 start of a class in the Ocean Rangers Institute (a fictional Aquarium agency) that they were scheduled to take in the Honda Theater.

Of course, sharks always seem to be a highlight for children, and these youngsters were no exception. Luckily, shark lagoon’s touch pools had just reopened for touching the previous day, following several days of having medication in the water to get rid of some sort of parasite somehow had gotten into it.

Most of the children were more than willing to pet the sharks and rays, and really seemed to enjoy doing so. They learned about the two-finger touch at the indoor round ray exhibit, so everyone dutifully used two fingers with the sharks and rays in the touch pools as well. One little girl appeared quite disappointed when she asked me if she could pet the bony fish and I told her no, but I did explain that because we could accidentally remove some of their protective scales, and thus make them susceptible to illnesses, she understood and went back to the sharks.

After the sharks, it was time for a snack of goldfish crackers and then they were off to the Honda Theater for their class. Officer Opaleye (actually, it was Emily, one of our educators), the marine safety officer for the Ocean Rangers Institute’s Marine Mammal Mystery, one of our school programs. Officer Opaleye called them to attention and advised them that they were now cadets, at which point the children stood at attention and appeared eager to learn more.

During their cadet training, by the way students learn all about the basic characteristics of marine mammals, then receive an assignment from Sgt. Sargo, Officer Opaleye’s “boss,” to help track a mysterious group of marine mammals as they travel down the coast of North America. Along the way, they get clues about what kind of marine mammals these are, and by the end of the mission, they can figure out who they’re tracking because they’ve learned so much about marine mammals.

Emily later told me that this group was great. “They were really smart and got really into everything. It’s always fun to play a character that gets kids excited to learn about ocean animals.” You can learn more about our educational programs by clicking here.

I didn’t participate in the class because I had other things to do and didn’t want to interrupt them in any way, so I watched them enter the theater and then went off to find more people with whom to talk.

The most enjoyable of the other folks I met Tuesday were four or five middle school students who had a lot of questions about blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet Earth. They approached Tim, another of our Tuesday volunteers, who had a large piece of baleen in one hand and a container of itsy bitsy krill (Euphausia superba) that is eaten by these giant creatures in the other hand.

The youngsters were totally blown away when they found out that a blue whale can get to be 100 feet in length, that they can crawl through its aorta, that its heart is the size of a Honda Civic, and that its tongue is the size of an African elephant. I so love to see the amazement on people’s faces when they learn incredible and most interesting facts about our ocean animals.

And that, my friends, is the best of what I did last Tuesday. Until next time, I wish you well. Happy fishes to all.

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