Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium

Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium is a ground-breaking AZA initiative supported by The Walt Disney Company that provides financial, logistical, and creative support to accredited zoos and aquariums to create innovative ways to establish or enhance family-centered nature play experiences in their communities. 

A variety of tools and resources are available for AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums including annual grant opportunities, webinars, tool kits, e-guides, and leadership programs.      

Grant Awards

Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium grants are awarded to AZA members to create and expand opportunities to connect families to nature. These grant funds are used to establish or enhance programs, build nature play spaces, increase accessibility with transportation and admission support, and build partnerships with community organizations to reach new audiences and extend the nature play beyond the zoo or aquarium visit. 

Grant Recipients

With support from the Disney Conservation Fund, 141 grants were awarded from 2014 to 2017 to AZA-accredited institutions totaling $990,000. Congratulations to our recipients!  Click here for the list of funded projects. 

Nature Play Leaders Program

Building on the success of the Nature Play Begins grant program and the growth of nature play programs at zoos and aquariums, Nature Play Leaders will help guide the transition of Nature Play Begins from an AZA-led initiative to a member-led community of practice supported by the AZA Conservation Education Committee’s Connecting to Nature initiative. NPLs will take an active role in leading and responding to conversations about Nature Play, accelerate the development of key resources, and work with the CEC's Connecting to Nature initiative to define priorities and strategies that will guide future work by committee members.

Selected leaders will serve a one year term from August 2018 - July 2019. Leaders will receive a $2500 stipend in recognition and support of their time and service. Applications are being accepted now through Friday July 20, 2018. Click here to learn more and download the application.

Young Leaders Program

Launched in 2017, the Nature Play Begins - Young Leaders Program empowers emerging, underrepresented AZA professionals to become active members of the nature play movement through professional development and stewardship opportunities. Five zoo and aquarium professionals, age 21-29 were selected and funded to attend AZA conferences, Children & Nature Network's Legacy Camp, and implement projects back at home that increase meaningful access to nature within their community.

Congratulations to the 2017 Young Leaders:

  • Ajee Hurst, Detroit Zoo
  • Amanda Morrison, Utah's Hogle Zoo
  • Andrew Stevenson-Asaki, New York Aquarium
  • Grace Hiu Yan Chau, Ocean Park Hong Kong
  • Lucila Fernandez, Friends of the National Zoo


AZA's Nature Play Task Force (NPTF) comprised of AZA and Disney staff, education leaders at AZA members, and partners from Children & Nature Network and the North American Association of Environmental Education has developed a variety of resources to facilitate program implementation. Click on the links below navigate to or download these materials.   


In partnership with Children & Nature Network, AZA presents a professional development webinar series for informal educators offering and managing nature play programs and spaces. These webinars feature case studies from within the field as well as experts in the nature play movement, such as Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., co-founder and President and CEO Emerita of the Children & Nature Network.

AZA Toolkit: Family Nature Clubs & You

The purpose of this toolkit, Family Nature Clubs & You: Zoos and Aquariums Connecting Families to Nature, is to provide information, resources and best practices - and even inspiration - to zoos and aquariums that are interested in creating or supporting a Family Nature Club. This toolkit was developed by drawing on the ideas and experiences of numerous experts in the field, including many AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums that implement family-based nature programming. The toolkit provides examples of ways to organize and host events both on and off zoo and aquarium grounds, as well as ideas for collaborating with and supporting existing Family Nature Clubs.

Family Nature Clubs & You is a publication of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and is based on the Children & Nature Network's Nature Clubs for Families Toolkit. Visit the C&NN Natural Families Network to learn more and find a local Family Nature Club near you.

E-Guide for Families

For more in-depth support of families needing guidance on how to engage in nature play, AZA worked with the Children & Nature Network to design this E-Guide for Families, which addresses 5 reasons, 5 ways, 5 places, and 5 times to connect and play in nature.  The e-guide is designed to be used in a digital format with multiple hyperlinks embedded that point the user to research, additional materials and websites for more information.

Pathways to Play: Overcoming Nature Play Barriers

This infographic highlights the benefits of playing in nature and proposes ways to think differently about the challenges, with a focus on using AZA-accredited zoos & aquariums as places where nature play begins. It is available for promoting nature play in publications, websites, exhibits, and training.

Pathways to Play ExampleClick the thumbnail to enlarge and save the jpg version or download Pathways to Play PDF

AZA's Nature Clubs Advisory Group used input from the participants of the September 2014 workshop on Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium to address barriers to nature play from two perspectives: that of families who find it difficult in today's world to incorporate nature play into their schedules, and that of educators struggling to implement nature play programming at their zoos and aquariums. Graphic design by Lab42.


Children in Nature

AZA recognizes the role that zoos and aquariums can play in the Children in Nature Movement. The Conservation Education Committee's "Experiencing Nature" initiative hopes to increase recognition by visitors that our institutions provide programs and experiences that connect children to nature. Visit the Children and Nature Network to explore ways your zoo or aquarium can help support this effort.

I Accept

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. If you continue using our website, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website and you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Find a Zoo or Aquarium Donate to AZA Contact Us Member Login Search the site