Nation’s Largest ‘Zoo School’ to Open in San Antonio


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Imagine you’re 4 years old.

How would you feel going to preschool with crocodiles, elephants, and butterflies? What about learning letters while on nature walks?

A rendering of the Will Smith Zoo School, named after the late son of San Antonio Zoo board member and donor Susan Naylor, who loved the outdoors, nature, and especially spending time with his mom at the zoo.

That childhood fantasy is reality for kids at the Will Smith Zoo School in San Antonio (68% Latino).

The Zoo School, which opened in 2004 and became licensed in 2014 at the San Antonio Zoo, will expand its capacity from about 50 to more than 200 students in 2018 and become the largest nature-based preschool in the nation, SA Current reports.

Zoo officials believe that learning can be as much of a serious hands-on experience as it is messy fun.

“Children will spend time in nature exploring and discovering the wonders of nature,” according to the Zoo School Parent Handbook. “Basic preschool concepts will be taught in conjunction with the ‘wow’ of plants, animals and conservation practices.”

Preschool, Nature, and Latino Kids

Preschool is big for kids.

zoo school kids on a nature walk
Zoo School kids on a nature walk (via San Antonio Zoo School Facebook page)

Preschool can improve lifelong wellbeing by offering healthy foods and drinks. Training staff on trauma-informed care also is vital.

If preschool incorporates nature, there are even more benefits.

Providing time for free play in nature improves social and emotional skills. Preschools that support outdoor learning environments boost students’ academic performance, mental health, and social and emotional learning.

Sadly, fewer Latino kids (40%) than white kids (53%) participate in preschool programs.

The Will Smith Zoo School gives San Antonio kids a chance to attend a nature-based preschool.

Nation’s Largest Nature-Based Preschool

The San Antonio Zoo has been an active member of the Texas Children in Nature Alliance since 2010.

At the Zoo School, kids spend 50% of each day outdoors.

zoo school kid plays in the mud
A Zoo School plays in the mud (via San Antonio Zoo School Facebook page)

There are still lessons in math, writing, and science. But they apply a “nature” lens to everything. There are birdhouses, stumps and boulders, a garden, a sand play area, a stage, a pond, and a hill. Kids get regular interaction with animals.

This helps kids understand, appreciate, and protect the world around them.

“We empower children to feel safe in nature, to seek and explore without harm, and to care for all things,” according to the handbook. “Students will develop a scientific temperament through hands-on experiences and learn to be good earth citizens.”

School officials are excited to expand.

In early 2016, thanks to donors and the Zoo, the Zoo School bought additional land that will allow for more classrooms and more time in nature.

They partnered with the Texas Department of State Health Services’s obesity prevention initiative called Texas Outdoor Learning Environments (OLE!). They use architectural and playscape design to boost physical activity and social and emotional learning.

The expanded school will open in January 2018.

“In fact it kind of becomes their zoo and they become the experts,” Amanda McMickle, director of Zoo School, told TPR. “And they enjoy taking their family and friends and visitors out into the zoo as well and show them their own zoo.”

Affordability Barriers

Major bragging rights come with having the nation’s largest nature-based preschool

But affordability and accessibility are still barriers for many Latino families in San Antonio.

zoo school kids learning about hippos
Zoo School kids learning about hippos (via San Antonio Zoo School Facebook page)

It can be more costly to educate a 4-year-old in preschool than an 18-year-old in college, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Daycare is considered affordable if it consumes 10% or less of a family’s income. Given that San Antonio has one of the widest income gaps in the country, this preschool is not affordable for most residents.

The median annual household income in San Antonio is $48,869. Five days a week at this preschool costs $9,000 annually, which is nearly double affordable care.

Achievement gaps mirror income gaps, which is why Florida offers free universal preschool.

Share this if you think all kids deserve quality early education with a connection to nature!

Ask your zoo if they can do this, too!

By The Numbers By The Numbers



of Latino parents support public funding for afterschool programs

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