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Child Educators Get a NatureStart

adults engaged in nature play

Forest Preserves staff benefit from Brookfield Zoo’s child development expertise

This February, Forest Preserves of Cook County naturalists and recreation staff spent much of their day on the floor playing with sticks.

As part of the NatureStart early childhood educational training program, Forest Preserves staff were asked to inhabit the world of a child and remember what it was like to explore natural objects in a playful way. The training is a unique collaboration between the Forest Preserves, the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo and two major Chicago-area early childhood education organizations, El Valor Children and Youth Service and Mary Crane Center. It brings staff from these groups together at three two-day sessions over 16 months, one at the zoo, one at an early childhood learning center and one in the forest preserves.

“The training focuses on how young children learn and how experiences with nature support this learning and help develop thinking skills while fostering a connection with the natural world,” said Cynthia Moreno, Forest Preserves Director of Conservation and Experiential Programming. Between sessions, educators participate in an online professional learning community hosted by Yammer. “People can share what they’re doing, post projects they’re working on and share their ‘aha moments,’” she said.

For Forest Preserves educators, it’s an opportunity to build on their considerable experience working with young children at nature centers, in schools and out in the prairie. It’s also a chance to connect directly with the families the Forest Preserves is working to make more aware of its resources.

Both groups will learn how to enrich their staff’s ability to create a positive, memorable experience for visitors and clients. “Studies show that having an adult, especially a parent or other caregiver, guide children through early education experiences makes them more effective,” said Moreno. “We can model that for adults who bring their families to the preserves.”

“We know that in many ways nature is getting farther away from kids, as they spend more time in organized programs,” said Marilyn Brink, Brookfield Zoo’s Manager of Professional Development and Early Childhood, who oversees family play programs at Brookfield Zoo’s Hamill Family Play Zoo and is the main trainer for the NatureStart program. “Even soccer games just happen to take place outside. We want the people who are providing programs to be as effective as can be, and help them develop their skills to create lifelong connections with nature. How we use that time with families is really critical.”

NatureStart focuses on the unique ways that children, particularly very young children infants to age 8, learn about and connect with nature. It draws on conservation psychology, a field developed at Chicago Zoological Society and the inspiration for the Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo, as well as the work of Richard Louv. The training brings in concepts such as Nature Deficit Disorder—the idea that children need exposure to nature just as they need vitamins and exercise—and ecophobia—the idea that it’s possible to scare children into apathy by unloading too many environmental problems too early in life. “It’s about letting them enjoy nature before we’re asking them to save it,” said Moreno.

“Kids learn by touching and feeling, sensory experiences,” said Brink. “We can’t just dump information on them and ask questions. They don’t have the answers yet. They need to be supported to investigate and discover for themselves. It’s about bathing them in language, not drowning them: ‘You found the worms under the log. Where do you think other worms might be? Those were in the shade—where might we find others?’”

The NatureStart program, which is about five years old, has won several awards, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Significant Achievement Award in Education in 2011. In 2013, the Zoo’s Senior Manager of Learning Experiences, Dave Becker, who leads NatureStart, won the White House Champions of Change Award for Museums and Libraries, one of only ten recognized nationwide that year.

“Brookfield Zoo is one of leaders in the field of child developmental psychology and nature,” said Arnold Randall, Forest Preserves General Superintendent. “It’s a great support that we have through them—they have the research to back this work up. This training will show in the ever increasing quality of the programming and experiences we provide.”