Nature meets creativity, imagination and play at our Wildlife Explorers Nature Preschool!
This play-based nature school opened last year as a way to give young learners from 3 to 4 years old – and their parents! – a unique preschool experience.
Children have an inherent need to explore and discover nature, said Jenny Thiem, our early child coordinator. Our preschool gives them a way to immerse themselves in nature while growing and building their physical bodies. This development is important to prepare children for the academic world.
“Our goal is to nurture the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual growth of each child within a respectful, creative and caring natural atmosphere,” Jenny said.
Our Zoo’s preschoolers spend almost all day outside exploring, playing and getting dirty! Children learn through play, so our teachers give them extended, uninterrupted and unstructured time for play. This gives them the chance to make independent decisions.
“The time will come when children are ready for academics but at this age, they need to focus on social, emotional, language and physical development,” Jenny said. “This is the time they need to be learning to share, problem solve, and be resilient.”
For mom Amanda Rice, this focus on building the child drew her to enrolling Maisie in the school.
“For us, it was more important to build a good person,” Amanda said.
The smaller class size and attentive educators have helped Maisie grow, Amanda said. As an only child who didn’t have access to socialize with many other children due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Maisie has learned to share and problem-solve through tough social situations. It has prepared her to make positive, strong relationships. She’s very proud of her friendships, Amanda said.
Maisie has also gained an appreciation of nature. Preschoolers get a weekly visit from an Animal Ambassador, make treats for Zoo animal residents, and get time with animal keepers.
“I wish I had that as a child,” Amanda said. It’s living the dream. It’s such a special program.”
As noted above, a lot of the students’ time is outdoors in the Zoo, our Exceptional Nature Space or in our playground area. This emphasis on giving children time in nature attracted mom Michelle Pitten to enrolling her child Reef in the program. It aligned with what she wanted for her child: a connection to nature.
“They get to be kids and run around, Michelle said. “They get to see all these animals and have these experiences that they would not have anywhere else.”
Michelle also appreciated that the curriculum emphasizes allowing the child to grow in their own way.
“His teachers see what he’s interested in and follow his lead,” Michelle said.
Our teachers follow an emergent curriculum, meaning they create experiences based on the preschoolers’ interests. Students are invited to explore subjects by posing, investigating, and answering questions. Children gain a deeper understanding of topics when they are able to discover answers through questioning.
In addition to nature play and experiential learning, our preschoolers also enjoy activities like playing with Play-doh, blocks, and doing art. This helps them build fine motor skills, creativity and imagination.
“It is important for preschoolers to strengthen their fine motor skills, so they are ready when it is time to learn to write,” Jenny said.
A typical day at our preschool includes: