Tempe Diablos funding boosts growth of after-school learning

A spring-break visit to Butterfly Wonderland offered youngsters a chance to get up close and personal with nature's winged beauty. (Wrangler News/Alex J. Walker)
A spring-break visit to Butterfly Wonderland offered youngsters a chance to get up close and personal with nature’s winged beauty. (Wrangler News/Alex J. Walker)

By Deborah Hilcove

For the first-time visitor, Tempe’s Kid Zone Spring Break Camp at Waggoner Elementary was like walking through a modern-day kaleidoscope. Turquoise, hot pink and bright yellow tables were prepared for science and art explorations. Pirate-themed walls greeted campers, inviting them to “Set Sail with your Kid Zone Mates and Spring Break Crew.”

Jeremy King, who serves as Kid Zone’s assistant director and tour-guide-in-chief, has been this kaledoscope’s most engaged planner—and its No. 1 activist—for a decade or more.

Toward its goal of providing a safe place for out-of-school activities, Kid Zone stresses educational fun in a nonthreatening environment, King says.

While the most recent offering was aimed at youthful spring-breakers, more than 3,000 children enroll annually at 18 sites during summer vacation and other school getaways. During the March 7-11 break, about 160 were registered at Rover Elementary, another 100 at Waggoner.

“We want kids to get into the world and explore,” King says. “We challenge them, introduce them to a lot of activities and to professionals who help them develop an interest into a passion. Earlier this week, we took campers to Salt River Fields for spring training games and to Scottsdale’s Butterfly Wonderland. We’re trying to create experiences for the kids to talk about with their families.”

At Waggoner, friendly staff greet parents and children, gathering nearly 100 well-behaved, K-8 youngsters around a stage, where they sit crosslegged and eager, while one of the site coordinators, 10-year Kid Zone veteran Aaron Villicana, leads the group in an eye-hand skill set, before a young volunteer gives a brief extemporaneous speech, trying to complete it without those awkward “uhm’s.”

Oh, no! One of those pauses slips into her talk and she’s squirted with a bit of water, causing everyone to erupt in peals of laughter—and eager to try the challenge themselves.

Mr. Aaron—for all staff members are addressed courteously—introduces several staffers who describe the day’s activities so campers can make choices. “We’re all about choices,” King explains.” We try to introduce the kids to key concepts and terms. And with each section, we try to have the kids make something to take home to spark conversations.”

First up is Miss Audrey, who’s in charge of Kid Zone’s STEM, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program sponsored by the city of Tempe and assisted with a generous grant from Tempe Diablos. “Today we’re going to have some crazy fun, making glow-in-the-dark worms—or if you’re really gross—boogers!” Again, bursts of laughter at the unexpected reference.

Nearly 30 youngsters gather at her station, prepped with translucent cups of water. “We’ll add gel and some ‘worm activator.’ The molecules will attach to each other and form a long string. That’s called a ‘polymer.’ And tonight you can tell your parents you made worms. It’s been a loooong time since they were in school, so you can explain about molecules and polymers.”

The youngsters giggle at the thought of teaching their parents.

“I’m going to be a geek when I grow up,” says Jake. “Science is super cool.” The kids fish out their worms from the water cups. “It’s invisible,” announces Jaiden. “And squishy,” adds Madison. “Mine’s the longest,” says Nick. Miss Audrey holds her phone under each cup. Having ingenuously taped and inked the light, she’s created an inexpensive black-light so the polymers glow. “Cool!” announces one experimenter. “I’m going to name mine ‘Wormie!’”

Meanwhile, Mr. Z , the humorously self-proclaimed All-Time Quarterback, has taken his group outside to play football. At another station, Miss Alex describes some new inside games and invites kids to try them.

A second site coordinator, Ty Clifford, looks like a collegiate big brother with orange running shoes, well-trimmed beard and neat man-bun.

A parks-and-recreation major at ASU, Kid Zone was his first job in high school. He continued through college and now celebrates his tenth year as a staffer. Sharing gardening and cooking skills with students, he’s helped plant a vegetable garden and works with the nutrition segment of Kid Zone.

“We made pickles earlier this week,” he says. “Today we’ll sample them and the kids’ll take some home. It’s a combination science project. They measured out vinegar, sugar, water and spices. They learned knife skills to cut the cucumbers, and we talked about the vinegar’s chemical reaction on cucumbers.” The result? Crunchy, garlicky-tasting pickles.

In another area, Miss Cassidy’s charges enthusiastically show their creations.

“Look at my sheep.” Fiona holds up her roly-poly, cotton-ball sheep with clothespin legs. “Her face is gold. And she has turquoise sparkly stars on her back.” Leaning in for a closer look, Briana shows her ice cream cone made with tongue depressors and painted cotton balls. “My favorite flavor is mint chip,” she says. Mikayla, with dancerlike grace, snuggles in to see. “And I made a puppet,” Mason adds, showing an elaborate convolution of strings and clothespins.

“Away from all this hub-bub, the kindergartners have their own special, safe place,” says the third site coordinator, Andrea Copado. “It’s a ‘happy room,’ designed by the talented Miss Adilene.” A barely perceptible fragrance scents the room, dominated by a wall-size yellow submarine. Brightly colored tables mimic those of the older youngsters, but these are set with materials to make a spy glass or a treasure map, furthering the pirate theme.

“We’re already planning for another outstanding summer camp,” King says. “Registration begins Monday, March 14, online or at the Kid Zone office at the Viehl Center, adjacent to the Tempe Public Library at Rural and Southern.”

For information and registration: www.kidzone@tempe.gov




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