A unique pre-school on the South Coast is the first of its kind in the state
Early Explorers in Santa Barbara is the licensed outdoor pre-school in California…AND it’s located at the Zoo!
A small class of children, aged between 3 and 5, are sat outside on tree stumps reading a story. In fact, all of their early education takes place outdoors, as this is the first licensed outdoor pre-school in California - and it’s located here, at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
“We are truly and full outdoors and we think that’s the best way to connect kids to nature and our overall mission of conservation and animal welfare. And they get to spend their pre school years at the zoo so it’s pretty exciting, " said JJ McLeod, Director of Education at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
She says it’s one of the most unique educational experiences around.
“We are getting them ready for kindergarten but through play and outdoor experiences and they have animal encounters and our keepers get to come and to talk to them about animal welfare and feeding the animals.
"I think this space is absolutely beautiful for the kids to have their first education experience and have it be so fun and immersive."
She says there’s shade available if it gets too hot, and they even have “ice enrichment” – but “if it rains, they put on rain boots and they jump in muddy puddles.”
The Early Explorers pre-school is an opportunity to start early with an appreciation for the natural world and conservation, with zoo walks, gardening and outdoor play-based learning all incorporated into the week, says Cindy Post, the pre-school director.
“I wish I could have gone to school here," said Post.
"It’s an amazing program, we get to do everything that a pre-school would do but just outside at the zoo.
"It provides so many enriching opportunities for the children. We get to start young with teaching them about conservation and sustainability and being good stewards of the environment and taking care of the earth.
“All while learning what you learn at pre-school like socialization, learning through play, we incorporate it all into our program in such a beautiful location.”
The program was borne from a pivot - when many parents had to navigate new challenges due to COVID-19. The Zoo previously had summer camps, but expanded its outdoor education programs thanks to gaining an emergency waiver. Two years later, and the program received its official license from the State.
There’s currently around 25 children in the program, but they are licensed to take 50. There's waitlist as – like so many places right now - they are seeking more staff before they can offer places to more students.
“We have a full waitlist, we are just looking for more qualified teachers to join our team,” said McLeod.
There’s certainly not many places you get to hear the roar of a lion while you’re at school.