Started in 2004, Will Smith Zoo School is a fully licensed, nature-based preschool. As a part of the San Antonio Zoo, the school strives to connect children to nature by integrating nature into its philosophy, methodologies, classroom design and outdoor spaces. Students are 3-5 years old and attend the school 2-5 days out of the week. By exposing children to the outdoors at such a young age, the school lives up to their vision; “Will Smith Zoo School is dedicated to cultivating innovative, resilient, and compassionate children who value living things and natural resources and who develop a relationship with nature through high quality, child-driven experiences involving enriched play, problem-solving and risk-taking. Our students will impact the world by helping to secure a future for wildlife.”
Project Description & History
The Will Smith Zoo School prepares children for kindergarten like other schools by focusing on student growth in math, pre-literacy, art, social, practical, gross and fine motor skills; however, their nature-based approach sets them apart. At the Will Smith Zoo School, students spend at least 50% of the day outside in the zoo and natural play areas. Daily activities at the school include exploring the zoo, participating in animal interactions, and playing with natural materials such as rocks, dirt, water, sand, twigs and leaves. Parents should expect their children to come home dirty, sweaty, and happy! The school not only teaches its students about zoo animals and plants, but also the importance of local wildlife. Outdoor play areas, such as the garden and the pollinator path, are filled with native plants and wildlife. The pollinator path provides habitat for several native butterfly species, including monarchs. Will Smith Zoo School instills in its students an appreciation and respect for native flora and fauna that they will carry with them throughout their entire lives.
Preparing students for kindergarten and providing a connection to nature are equally important goals of the school. Students are assessed both by the Texas Pre-K Guidelines, and the school’s own Nature Consciousness Rating Scale to assess their relationship with nature. In addition to helping create future stewards of the environment, another environmental accomplishment of Will Smith is their LEED certification. They are the first LEED Platinum certified preschool in the country.
There are significant benefits to a nature-based school, both for the students and for wildlife. Time in nature is important to students in a number of ways. It improves a child’s awareness, reasoning and observational skills, stimulates social interaction, increases concentration in children with ADHD, improves motor fitness, reduces bullying, fosters imaginative and creative play, improves language and collaborative skills, and reduces stress. The school also teaches children about the importance of plants and animals and cultivates a lifelong passion for the outdoors. The hope is that these students will go on to be protectors of our wildlife and natural spaces.