When Animals are the Teachers

By Bruce Holaday|February 16, 2018

As a child growing up on a small lake in the Midwest, I spent my summer days in a little wooden dinghy exploring and learning about my wild neighbors: the muskrats, sunfish, bass, snakes, minnows, turtles, waterfowl, snails, and more. Those years of feeling connected to, and part of, the natural world influenced so much of my life.

As an adult, I have spent my career in school classrooms and hallways, but the summers of my youth at the lake have stayed with me and kept me grounded in the natural world. One of my recent school-related assignments has been as a member of the California State Board of Education, on which I currently serve. Early in my first appointment, I had the privilege to vote for the state’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). One of the reasons I felt such enthusiasm for the NGSS is because I saw how clearly and powerfully environmental content would support the NGSS. California is becoming a leader in K–12 science and environmental education. With the adoption of the NGSS, the integration of California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) into the new science framework, and the implementation of the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, California is helping students and teachers understand that science education and environmental literacy are essential for our future.

After years of school career assignments, I had the good fortune to join the team at Wildlife Associates, whose tagline is, “Where animals are the teachers.” At Wildlife Associates we support students and teachers by bringing science and environmental literacy alive with our educational programs featuring the amazing, non-releasable wild animals that live at our sanctuary outside Half Moon Bay. Each day, the staff of Wildlife Associates is reminded of the effectiveness of environmental education in schools. Recently, a 4th grade teacher told us:

“The students are so intrigued and engaged by the birds and their stories. They have been invested in the lessons and wanting to help these birds. We have been so pleased with the students’ work on this unit that we are sending out invitations to parents to come join us at the presentations because we are hearing from them that their kids are so inspired by this unit. We have also invited the Board of Education to come for the presentations because we think they will be impressed with the caliber of work the students are doing on this unit.”

Perhaps this student said it more succinctly: “Meeting those animals and learning we can help them was the most amazing experience of my life!”

The work is gratifying. Today’s students are the future leaders and stewards of the planet. Wildlife Associates’ educational programs for elementary schools help students understand the how and why of real-world environmental issues, but it is our animals that touch the hearts of the students. The stories of injury and neglect of so many of our non-releasable animals inspire empathy and help children understand how connected we are with all living creatures.

Our approach is three-fold. For young people to make wise decisions about the environment:

  • they need to know the scientific facts. We make learning science engaging and relevant, while ensuring that students have the scientific knowledge they need.
  • they must feel a connection to the Earth and all its life. We help students understand how directly the environment affects them each day, and we teach them how scientific facts are connected to their everyday lives.
  • they must care. As children begin to understand important life science concepts, they can begin to understand environmental stewardship and empathy for all life.

Wildlife Associates offers three NGSS environmental science units for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms across the state of California. Each unit engages students to help solve real-world environmental issues. For example, the 3rd grade unit focuses on species displacement and how ecosystems fall out of balance. Students learn how valuable each species is to a balanced ecosystem, and they learn to care.

The online curriculum guide shares videos, research links, lesson plans, curriculum maps, outside resources, and everything that a teacher needs to complete the unit successfully with students. As with a thoroughly-developed NGSS unit, connections are drawn between NGSS and Common Core Standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts. Scaffolding strategies are described in detail to help teachers meet students where they are in their knowledge. In all grades, across all disciplines, environmental content engages students and promotes successful learning. As one parent said:

“I just wanted to say thank you and share that this is all that my son has talked about for the past three weeks. Normally, if I asked what he was learning at school, I would have to push to get any information. Not these past few weeks. He would come home every night, excited to teach us about what he learned about the birds, about these machines, about electricity. He spent time looking into these subjects, on his own, on the computer. This wasn’t part of an assignment. It was because he just wanted to know more and to really understand it. As a parent, it was exciting for me to see him so engaged and to see him so motivated to learn.”

A really great way to learn about the importance of the natural world is to row a small wooden dinghy along the shoreline of a pristine lake. But this is just one of many pathways to environmental literacy. In order to reach all of California’s students, interweaving the NGSS and environmental content are certainly a powerful way to engage, teach, and inspire young people in and out of the classroom.


Bruce Holaday
This article was written by Bruce Holaday

Bruce Holaday has been Director of Educational Advancement for Wildlife Associates since 2010. He also serves as a member on California's State Board of Education. He was formerly the director of Newpoint Tampa High School from 2009–2010 and director of the Oakland Military Institute from 2004–2009. He served in multiple positions at Culver Academies from 1976–2004, including Development Director, Director of Summer Programs, and English teacher.