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Olson: Zoo work leads to White House trip

Provided photo
Dave Becker, 52, of DeKalb, speaks during a panel discussion at the White House on June 11. Becker is senior manager of learning experiences with the Chicago Zoological Society, and was named one of 12 Champions of Change for his work with Brookfield Zoo's Hamill Family Play Zoo, which gives children hands-on experiences with nature and animals.
Provided photo Dave Becker, 52, of DeKalb, speaks during a panel discussion at the White House on June 11. Becker is senior manager of learning experiences with the Chicago Zoological Society, and was named one of 12 Champions of Change for his work with Brookfield Zoo's Hamill Family Play Zoo, which gives children hands-on experiences with nature and animals.

If you decide to take the kids or grandkids on a field trip to Brookfield Zoo this summer, stop by the Hamill Family Play Zoo.

With a 15,000-square-foot inside area and a 2-acre play garden, it’s a part of the zoo where children can learn about nature and animals through hands-on experiences, rather than just watching from the other side of a cage.

It’s also the part of the zoo that DeKalb’s Dave Becker and his team with the Chicago Zoological Society have spent the past 12 years creating. This month, Becker was recognized for his work in early learning education as part of the “Champions of Change” initiative at the White House.

On June 11, Becker, 52, was one of 12 professionals from around the country who took part in a roundtable discussion in the South Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex.

President Barack Obama couldn’t make the gathering, but visiting the White House as an invited guest rather than a tourist was a thrill, Becker said. It was reaffirming to be recognized for the work he and his coworkers are doing at the Chicago area’s largest zoo, Becker said.

“To have that kind of recognition was just a huge boost of saying, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s important; it’s being recognized at a national level,’ “ Becker said. “Maybe it’s even more important than I think it is.”

Becker brought his wife Kirsten, as well as his two daughters, his son and grandson along for the trip, during which they also visited the National Zoo, among other destinations.

Becker is senior manager of learning experiences with the zoological society. In his work with the play zoo, Becker and his coworkers try to help today’s children have outdoor experiences that are becoming harder to come by.

Just as many children don’t get together to play without a pre-arranged “play date,” so too are they losing their connection to the natural world, Becker said. You can also see a video of his remarks at Champions of Change online at:

“[Growing up] I spent hours in the woods, climbing trees, building forts, catching frogs, and getting as dirty as possible,” Becker wrote in a blog post on the White House’s website. “I didn’t know how valuable these experiences were until I became a parent.

“For my own children to have any of these experiences, I had to help make them happen. My children needed me and other adults to provide the spaces and opportunities, which are rapidly disappearing as access to nature becomes more and more removed from the human experience.”

At the play zoo, children can play in the woods, build forts, make mud pies, hunt for bugs, see animals up-close and help care for them. Becker’s team, known as the NatureStart Early Childhood Initiative, also has partnered with universities and community organizations to bring play-based nature activities to deprived communities, Becker said.

Not only is the zoo helping children have hands-on interaction with nature, but they’re teaching others from aquariums and zoos around the country and Latin America how to do the same, Becker said.

Recently, after representatives from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore visited the zoo, they set up their own children’s area, Becker said.

The Becker family expected their stay in DeKalb to be temporary while Kirsten completed law school at NIU, Dave Becker said. But they fell in love with the Barb City, and have called DeKalb home for the past 12 years. Becker and his family have also established strong ties with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb, where he is religious education director.

“The things that are available through the university being right there … [and] it’s a friendly community,” Becker said.

Hopefully, Becker still finds the time to get dirty once in a while.

Puppets’ persuasion: This week the New Yorker magazine put an image of the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie on its cover.

The image showed Bert and Ernie snuggling on a couch while they watched news coverage about this week’s Supreme Court decision about the Defense of Marriage Act.

The point of the illustration was that Bert and Ernie are gay, and hence pleased at the court’s decision to strike down part of DOMA.

I grew up with Bert and Ernie. They were my favorite characters on “Sesame Street” when I was a little boy. The entire time I watched those two guys hang out while wearing odd sweaters or singing duets while sleeping in separate beds in their bedroom, it never occurred to me to question what their sexual orientation might be. Maybe because I was more interested in learning to count to 12.

Today, the urge is to make everyone – even puppets on a children’s’ TV show – choose sides in this culture war we’re having.

How about we let the real, live adults work this out rather than drag a couple of puppets – or a Teletubby, or any talking unicorns, or any other make-believe characters from children’s television – into things? They’re not real, after all.

Kids don’t think about this stuff the way we do. That’s part of what makes them so great to talk to. There’s no need to politicize their TV shows. It always comes off cheesy.

Politically incorrect admission: I will not be shooting off any fireworks this Fourth of July because I am not leaving Illinois.

But I do enjoy fireworks. I like shooting them into the air, watching them explode and hearing everyone at the party say, “Ooooh.” It’s fun.

Feels like that’s not a very politically correct thing to say. Here in Illinois, we’re supposed to “leave fireworks to the professionals,” lest we shoot an eye out or start a fire.

Granted, those are possible outcomes.

Of course, if our state did legalize the sale of fireworks, lawmakers could impose a hefty tax on them. Some of the proceeds could be diverted to grant programs for firefighter equipment and training throughout the state, and the rest could be used to try to pay the state’s pensioners.

Let local communities impose their own bans as they see fit, and you could keep from alienating people while generating some extra cash.

Just a thought. There can only be so much gambling, alcohol and tobacco taxes before lawmakers have to move on to something else, right?

Regardless, unless you’re planning a trip out of state, obey the law and check out one of the fireworks displays planned in the area around the holiday. We’ll be running lists in the days ahead in the Daily Chronicle and online at – and if you want to see pyrotechnics, check one out.

America: God bless her. Have a happy and safe Fourth of July.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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