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NatureStart: Come and Play!

By Jana Durham
Director, Hutchinson Zoo
Professional Development Committee Member

With a significant number of families raising children in cities, parents and conservation professionals alike are faced with the question of how to go about connecting kids to nature.  Research says an emotional connection to nature grows when children have regular opportunities to leisurely explore the natural outdoor world through hands-on, unstructured play.  The Chicago Zoological Society is providing such opportunities by combining existing training outreach programs in the Hamill Family Play Zoo into its new NatureStart Program, which joins the AZA Professional Development Program as a new course offering this fall.

“We know through studies that early-childhood play opportunities help bridge the gap between children and nature,” said Stuart Strahl, PhD., President and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society.

Even with the understanding of the importance of introducing the concepts of conservation and nature exploration in early-childhood, many zoo, aquarium, and nature center educators are faced with a challenge. Early-childhood development is not typically the primary focus of study for these professionals.  NatureStart was designed to help bridge that gap; improving the competency and confidences 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. 

NatureStart’s curriculum is designed for informal educators in regional, national, and international museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers to expand the opportunities that children have to directly experience nature through play. 

“When people start planning their programming based upon how children learn and play, then we know this program is having an impact,” said Dave Becker, Senior Manager of Learning Experiences.

Programming that follows the NatureStart model is designed to engage, educate and empower parents, grandparents, families, and educators of children to develop skills to replicate nature play experiences.  Program benefits include an increased awareness and knowledge of the natural world, greater interest in playing outside, and improved mental and physical health as a result of outdoor exploration.

If your zoo or aquarium is interested in developing programming that connects young children to nature through play, consider attending the NatureStart course hosted by the Chicago Zoological Society - Brookfield Zoo October 10-15, 2013. Click here to learn more and register.