The Santa Barbara Zoo is making history as the first accredited zoo preschool in California, immersing children in a play-based, nature-focused curriculum while preparing pupils for kindergarten.
The preschool program, called Early Explorers, took off in October 2020 at a time when many parents were navigating the unique challenges of remote learning. The flagship program was such a success among parents in the community that the zoo has now received a green light to expand the program into a full-time preschool as the first California zoo school accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Since opening preschool registration on Monday, enrollment has skyrocketed, growing the student population from 30 students to 54 students with 30 children still on the waitlist.
“Who wouldn’t want to come to preschool at the zoo?” J.J. McLeod, the zoo’s education director, told the News-Press. “What a unique experience that they literally hear lions roar during their class day and they can see the ocean. There’s no better way to really connect with nature than being close to the beach, getting to garden all day and then also getting to connect with animals.”
The preschool facility, nestled in a corner of the zoo adjacent to the lion exhibit, is composed of five large tents where students meet every morning to begin their school day.
During a typical school day session, students learn about a letter and animal of the week, complete crafts and play outdoors while engaging in nature activities like animal encounters and gardening.
Zoo staff even allow the children to feed the giraffes almost daily and bring small animals and reptiles for the children to see up close during the school day.
“It’s definitely a unique learning environment, and I think what’s so cool about it is the kids get to actually engage in authentic learning experiences where they’re kind of in control of what they’re learning each week and each day,” Parthenopi Milios, education coordinator and director of the preschool, told the News-Press. “We kind of try to guide their learning based on what they’re interested in each day.”
During an unprecedented school year, zoo officials said the preschool gave parents a safe place to send their children. What started as a trial program to gauge the need for the zoo preschool is now receiving growing community support, and the preschool is looking to expand to accommodate a greater population of students.
“I know for a lot of kids, they’ve been cooped up indoors for months and getting to have a safe environment for kids to learn and explore outside and socialize outside and with other people has definitely been something that the community really needed,” Ms. Milios said.
As the preschool awaits full licensing from the state, it has received a waiver to proceed with a full-time program, which will offer daily classes from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Prior to the waiver, students enrolled in the preschool program were only able to attend school at the zoo for a maximum of 12 hours per week.
The zoo plans to expand its current programs with two-day, three-day and five-day options, with a choice of half-day and full-day sessions. The 54 enrolled students will be split into pods, with nine students assigned to one teacher.
As the preschool enrollment grows, Ms. McLeod said staff is excited to welcome the kids to learn in a nature-rich environment. The zoo hosts annual summer programs for thousands of kids each summer, so officials are already equipped to meet the needs of the 3 to 5-year-olds in the Early Explorers program.
“We really just wanted to build a safe place for kids to come and be able to learn,” Ms. McLeod said. “Our philosophy of education has always been rooted in really growing the next stewards of the environment and really connecting them with animals and nature. So what we did was just kind of adapted the curriculum to the pre-K.”
Despite a growing waitlist, Ms. McLeod encourages parents to still register their children, as the school plans to expand in the coming months to accommodate a large student population. For more information on how to register, visit sbzoo.org/learn/early-explorers.