Game Teaches Kids About Sea Otters, Ecosystem Health and Dangers of Pollution
We all know that the children are our future. And those who are trying to preserve the health of marine ecosystems, sea otters and other marine mammals, and the quality of life along the California coast struggle how to teach the next generation these important concepts. Now, a collaboration between scientists at University of California, Davis-School of Veterinary Medicine and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitors Center with funding from the National Science Foundation, have developed an outreach program that includes a game kids can play in teams that teach principles of marine ecology, the challenges of survival in a marine environment, and the dangers of various forms of pollution.
Basically, the game is a life-size marine mammal ecology game similar to Chutes and Ladders. A large (room sized) hand painted canvas is divided in squares numbered 1-100. Some of the squares have good things that happen to promote the health of the animals like “Students work to restore wetlands – Move forward 4 spaces.” And some of the squares have bad things that happen like “Sewage spill releases pathogens into the ocean – Move back 8 spaces.” The children are divided into 3 teams. One team stands along the right side of the board, the 2nd along the top side and the third along the left side so they are all surrounding the canvas and can see. Each team is named after a different marine mammal and one child from each is selected to be the animal that moves through the board on the canvas. The team members on each side take turns rolling the large 5 inch dice for their team. When a child lands on a square, the words describing an event are read out loudly so everyone can hear, and this provides an opportunity to talk about the good or bad thing that has happened in the game. The child that makes it to the last square first wins the game for that team.
Andrea Packham, who works in Dr. Pat Conrad’s lab at the U.C. Davis One Health Center, describes the action, “Here is how it works best for us. We give a 15 min power point presentation introducing fecal pathogen pollution and use the sea otter as an example of how pathogens can move from land to sea through the watershed to harm marine mammals. Then we discuss the sea otters history and a their ecology, mentioning that they are a keystone species and explain some of the risk factors associated with them getting infected with disease-causing agents like the Toxoplasma parasite. We end with some ideas about how they can help reduce this type of pollution and show a short video, from either This American Land (for younger kids) or a CBS news piece (older kids). This helps reinforce what we just went over.”
There are lots of opportunities to interact. Often a box of sea otter skulls and pelts are brought for the kids to touch and talk about. Abalone shells, shark’s teeth and other marine artifacts can also be passed around. This is usually done for about 10 minutes and then “the games begin”. By making the game board out of canvas it’s equally easy to play indoors or outside if weather permits.
There are three copies of this game, one that resides in the Davis area, one in Santa Cruz where it will be visiting schools, and a third at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitors Center in San Francisco. Andrea says, “We’ve played the game with kids as young as third grade and as old as high school with great success. They all seem to really enjoy the game and it helps reinforce the main points made in the presentation.” The children also leave with a bookmark they can use for their nightly reading that reminds them of the lessons they just learned and they can take this educational souvenir home and easily share the information with their parents.
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