Elephants and sea lions and red pandas… oh my!

Wild animals are just a few things preschoolers at Educare Denver have learned about as they hone their skills as young scientists.

The Denver Zoo partnered with Clayton Early Learning, home of Educare Denver, beginning last year to offer trips to the zoo as well as school visits by zoo staff. Children are learning about science and nature play as well as developing social-emotional skills.

“We know through research that children who engage in nature play in general have higher coping skills and have lower stress levels than children who are inside constantly,” said Debrah Jacobson, mentor coach, curriculum and instruction, at Educare Denver. “What 3- or 4-year-old child doesn’t want to be outside? So we give them opportunities to integrate very important academic skills into these opportunities outside.”

When the children visit the zoo, nature guides show them different animals and pose open-ended questions to spark their curiosity. The children have learned about giraffes, elephants, sea lions, red pandas and other animals. The children also enjoy a sensory playground with a water pump, wheelbarrows and natural materials.

“Along with science and inquiry skills, the students are building community within their class and with the nature guides by taking turns, sharing tools, solving problems and having peer and adult interactions and communications,” said Nicole Little, one of the nature guides from the Denver Zoo. “We were able to help children get past their fears by emphasizing to the children how each of them is a young scientist, ready to observe, question and wonder the way that all scientists do.”

During visits to the school, the nature guides bring scientific tools, such as clipboards, binoculars and bug collection jars, and show the children how to use them. Walking through the school’s garden, the children can observe plants and insects and document what they see and learn.

“I like how much more comfortable my students are when playing outdoors,” said teacher Samuel McCabe. “Before the zoo program, some of my students were afraid to sit in the grass. Now my students will sit in the grass and they love to catch insects on the playground!”

Parents are encouraged to get involved in the nature activities. “Last year, the zoo participated in a parent meeting with our class,” said teacher Shanna Grogan. “The parents and children were so engaged with meeting different animals in our classroom. The nature guides even reminded parents about teaching children to respect all living things. This experience really seemed to make our school family closer.”

Zoo staff provide professional development for the preschool teachers around nature play. Teachers were encouraged to reflect on their own experiences with nature as a child and think of new ways to incorporate nature play into their classroom routines.

“My favorite experience so far has been helping my children investigate mealworms in our sensory garden,” said teacher Victoria Garrison. “It was a growing experience for me and them. I wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a mealworm, yet there I was in the thick of it with my children picking them up, letting them crawl on me and looking at them up close!”