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Revolutionizing Early Childhood Nature Education
People come to Brookfield Zoo for many reasons you probably already know – to get up-close to amazing animals, spend quality time with their families, or learn something new about wildlife. However, what you may not realize is that Brookfield Zoo is also at the forefront in providing innovative approaches to early childhood nature education. More simply, the Chicago Zoological Society revolutionizes play.

One of the first children’s zoos in the country was developed at Brookfield Zoo in the 1950s. A new field of study, Conservation Psychology, was created at Brookfield Zoo, addressing the human dimensions of how children (and adults) are motivated to care about saving wild animals and wild places. And, taking "play" to a new level, the award-winning Hamill Family Play Zoo has initiated a new breed of family and children’s programming and exhibits in zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S. This tradition continues in our landmark education and training initiative, Childhood Nature Connections.

Hands-On Learning for Teachers
Through Childhood Nature Connections, CZS is developing the skills of new conservation leaders from all walks of life who provide meaningful nature experiences for children and families—and actively work to improve children’s access to nature. “This isn’t only about preparing children for the future,” states Dave Becker, Senior Manager of Learning Experiences, “it’s about inspiring the adults who work with children to think of themselves as conservation leaders and to act on behalf of the environment for the sake of the important children in their lives.”

Throughout 2009, CZS has offered newly developed training programs and workshops for educators of young children, including formal educators from school and preschool settings, as well as informal educators from zoos, aquariums, and nature centers. Childhood Nature Connections training programs provide early childhood educators the skills to incorporate nature play and exploration into their classroom, school grounds, and curriculum. Teachers are given hands-on demonstrations on how to use natural materials such as mud, sticks, or grasses in art class. Or, how to create a container gardens or a bug "playground" using recyclable materials...anything that offers the opportunity for kids can receive direct contact with nature in the classroom! Programs have been offered through Illinois STARnet, a Support and Technical Assistance Regional Network which provides a variety of professional development opportunities for educators of children aged birth to eight. Similar training has been offered through the Chicago Public Schools: Preschool for All and Community Partnerships programs, as well as a workshop offered at the annual Leadership Connections conference through the McCormick Tribune Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

Connecting with Childhood Play
Informal educators in zoos, aquariums, and nature centers face distinct challenges in developing specialized programming for young children. Traditional environmental education curriculum and projects can often show a lack of understanding of the cognitive, emotional, and social development unique to young learners. Training programs through Childhood Nature Connections are aimed at improving both the competence and confidence of informal educators in their understanding of childhood play and learning, as well as their skill and ability in facilitating nature play and exploration for children and families. In 2009, training was provided for the staff of Toledo Zoo for their new Nature’s Neighborhoods exhibit and for Shedd Aquarium for their new Polar Play Zone exhibit. Our spring lecture series on children and nature was attended by families and educators throughout the region and our more in-depth full day training was offered through our Adventures in Learning classes available to the public through Gateways, Brookfield Zoo’s member magazine.

“We’re just getting warmed-up, “says Becker, adding with a smile, “wait until you see what’s next. We definitely have a lot to be proud of, but we’re not slowing down. The work we do with children and families is too vital for us to ever take for granted or to allow ourselves to get complacent about. Conservation isn’t only about creating a world fit for wildlife; it’s about creating a world fit for children.”