Zoo camps help kids stay active, connect with nature

Nothing says summer in Portland like meeting a few elephants and digging for bugs

Northwest campers are always on the lookout for bears. But tigers and elephants? Not so much. Unless you’re an Oregon Zoo camper, that is. The zoo’s popular summer camps return June 18, with programs for children 4 years of age through eighth grade.

“Zoo camp is a great way for kids to stay active, continue learning over the summer, and make a strong connection with nature,” said Jennifer Whitener, program supervisor.

Each weeklong camp includes crafts, songs, stories, snacks, train rides, animal visitors and in-depth tours of the zoo. Camp activities, specifically planned for the interests of each age group, cover everything from designing your own zoo to learning about veterinary medicine.

“Our campers go on hikes, dig for bugs, observe the wildlife in neighboring Washington Park, and meet some very interesting animals here at the zoo,” Whitener said. “They might get a little dirty, they’ll probably be a little tired at the end of the day, and they’ll definitely have something to talk about at the dinner table.”

The zoo’s professional camp staff has been helping children explore the wonders of wildlife through fun, hands-on learning since 1983. All staff members are screened for excellence in programming for children. Every staff member is required to have previous experience working with children, and many return year after year.

“Our counselors are very active in engaging the kids,” Whitener said. “They’re not just glorified babysitters.”

Typically, staff members have also worked for public schools, OMSI, Outdoor School or Audubon. Most are college graduates or are working on a degree. Staff-to-student ratios are 1:8 for kindergarten through first grade, and 1:10 for second- through eighth-grade camps.

As of this writing, camps are still available for all age groups, but Whitener says they tend to fill quickly as the end of school draws near.