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EDUCATION

ZooLittles Nature-Play Program

Introducing ZooLittles

John Ball Zoo is excited to launch a new nature-play program, offering young children learning experiences based in nature-play and exploration that will inspire young hearts and inform young minds.  

Each day we will intentionally slow down in order to playfully explore our natural world, from the Zoo’s amazing animal habitats to the wild, forest habitat just a few hops, skips, or gallops from our indoor classroom! Meaningful play is the foundation for all future learning, and instructors will cultivate an emergent, developmentally appropriate curriculum across the four developmental domains: social/emotional, physical, cognitive, and linguistic. Learning activities and materials will be based upon the interests of our young explorers and best environmental learning practices as identified by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). Where children lead, we will enhance and enrich. Through play and exploration, we will focus on relationships with ourselves, each other, and with the natural world.

Daily activities include outdoor exploration in all types of weather. Families will be provided with a list of recommended gear to keep explorers comfortable and the Zoo will work to help provide gear for families in need.

Please note: participants must be the age of the class by the first day of class and must be self-sufficient in the bathroom. 

3-year-old Program – Tuesday/Thursday, 8:30am-12:30pm – $2,000/yr

4-year-old & Young 5’s Program – Monday/Wednesday/Friday, 8:30am-12:30pm – $2,960/yr

Schedule: Mid-September thru Mid-May

Program Breaks (2023-24): Thanksgiving Break – November 22-25, Winter Break – December 25-January 6, Spring Break – April 1-5 

Information Sessions

The information session will include a 15-20 minute presentation outlining the curriculum and approach for the program, 10-15 minutes for Questions and Answers, and 15-20 minutes for any caregivers wishing to speak individually with ZooLittles staff. If you are unable to attend an information session but wish to speak to the Instructor prior to registering please email [email protected], we will do our best to coordinate a time during regular business hours. Please note – these are not appropriate for children, a separate Open House will be held for all enrolled students/families the week prior to the start of the program. 

Tuesday, January 23, 5:00-6:30pm – Forest Classroom

 

The Forest Classroom is located on the West side of the Administration Building. It is best accessed by heading towards the Main Zoo entrance, then follow the paved sidewalk towards the new Education Classrooms. The Forest Classroom is the last classroom on the right. Signage will be on-site to direct foot traffic from the large, main parking lot to the classroom. 

Registration Information: The Zoo is using the same platform for ZooLittles registration as was used for Zoo Camp. We are using an application, so you should receive confirmation that your application has been completed. A SEPARATE email will follow if/when your application is accepted and you have a space in the class. Please give us at least two business days to accept/process applications.  

Registration for the 2024-25 program is now closed. 

Please email any questions to [email protected]

Preschool

Winter in the Woods - 2022/23

This winter, register your 3 and 4 year olds for Winter in the Woods. If you bring the warm, dry clothing, we’ll supply the hours of outdoor exploration, fun, and hands-on learning in John Ball Park’s wooded hillside and natural spaces.

All participants must be self-sufficient in the bathroom. Diapers/pull-ups are not permitted. 

Members – $30/class   Non-Members – $35/class

About the Program

For young children, play is the natural and primary method of learning about themselves, other people, and the world around them. Snow can be the best toy a child will ever know. And we believe there is no such thing as an, “indoor kid.” When kids are dressed appropriately for the weather, their natural learning style emerges and we see active, happy, creative kids who, when allowed the opportunity, will have an awesome time outdoors for an hour or more! Even when the wind blows and snow piles up, children who are wearing warm, dry layers can play and play! Each week has a theme but each day is a new exploration so you are welcome to sign your explorer up for more than one session in a week!

 

Program Themes

Themes we may be exploring may vary from the schedule. These experiences will be largely based on the unpredictable, teachable moments that occur in nature with young children. With this in mind, please know that if you sign your child up for a specific date based on the theme that week, it is entirely possible that the actual content may change based on the real-life experiences the kids are having outside! Stories, activities, and animal encounters may be more centered on the theme.

Schedule

Registration for Winter in the Woods will open November 29 at 12pm

Preschool

Meet the Teacher: Tahlia Hoogerland

Tahlia is a certified teacher with two degrees in Early Childhood Development and 20 years’ teaching experience. She has been an instructor here at John Ball Zoo since 2017, primarily teaching Sprouts and Winter in the Woods classes and facilitating Travel Zoos and Wild Encounters for school groups. Additionally, Tahlia has designed and facilitated outdoor education experiences with elementary school age children since 2009.

Please direct questions to [email protected] or 616-336-4302

Preschool

Meet the Teacher: Ariana Recinos

Ariana has been working in childcare for 7 years and graduated from Whittier College with a B.A. in Child Development with a minor in Elementary Education. She has experience working in formal and informal classrooms and is well-versed in working with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Ariana loves child-directed exploration and learning, but the most important things to her are to have fun and be silly while doing it!

Please direct questions to [email protected] or 616-336-4302

ZooLittles Nature Programs combine nature-play and play-based learning in to one fun, educational, and developmentally appropriate experience. When you visit ZooLittles Nature Program, you will see the following types of learning experiences: 

  • Climbing, balancing, and just-right risk level activities on logs, rocks, and our wooded hillside. (Developing strength, coordination, balance, perserverance, proprioception, self-motivation, and confidence. 
  • Muddy, messy experiments (Children are natural scientists!)
  • Outdoor Morning Meeting emphasizing collaborative skills and social connections. 
  • Children peering into hollow trees and discovering tiny creatures living beneath rocks and logs. (Fostering curiosity and wonder)
  • Children wearing “mud gloves” to gently hold and learn about small creatures such as snails, slugs, frogs, and earthworms. (Building empathy and compassion for all living things)
  • Loud, exuberant, joyful play in the forest, in the Zoo, as well as in and near our classroom. (Playful learning hardly ever looks like learning. We know they are learning, but they know they are having fun!)

John Ball Zoo’s ZooLittles Nature Program fosters children’s connections with themselves, each other, and the natural world upon which we all depend. 

Young children quite literally need to move in order to learn, and the more they learn, the more they need to move. Outdoor nature-play offers the best movement-oriented learning opportuntities where all six of their senses are engaged. Time spent in nature increases stress resilience, decreases anxiety and depression, enhances physical, mental, and emotional health, and contributes to children’s cognitive and emotional development. 

Play is the foundation of all learning. Our ZooLittles staff believe every moment is an experiential learning opportunity.

We offer an emergent, child-centered, and child-inspired curriculum, supporting all developmental domains: social/emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and physical. Additionally, through nature-play, educators foster environmental literacy and awareness through open exploration of the classroom-adjacent forest and natural materials both within and outside the classroom. This approach naturally lends itself to mathematical, scientific, and critical thinking and learning. 

We believe most weather is enjoyable when we are dressed for it! In the event of severe or dangerous weather, we adapt as needed. When wind chills drop too low, we cover up all our skin except our eyes and learn outside for shorter periods of time, remaining nearby our classroom. We bring snow to our texture table indoors and offer a variety of natural objects for classroom play. We do remain inside our classroom during high winds or thunderstorm activity. When weather conditions cause Grand Rapids Public Schools to close classes, ZooLittles will also be canceled for the day. 

Active, outdoor exploration requires nonrestrictive clothing that can get wet and muddy. We will get paint, play dough, and homemade silly putty on our clothes. We will crawl and slide around the forest on our knees and bottoms. We will splash in mud puddles and roll snowballs. 

Your child will need suitable clothing for any and all of these activities, as well as an extra set of clothes to be kept in the classroom. We will offer recommendations for specific outerwear for each season prior to the first day of ZooLittles. 

If you need assistance acquiring any necessary items of clothing, please let us know. We do not want lack of outdoor gear to be a barrier for anyone. 

We spend anywhere from 50-100% of our time outside. Some of this time is spent on our classroom-adjacent nature playground with logs and rocks for climbing, tools for creating and building, trees to hide behind, and space to run around. 

One day a week will largely be spend exploring the forest, while another will see us enjoying the Zoo, even in the off-season! We will have “stay days,” which will include the choice to flow between our indoor classroom and our outdoor play space. 

Once a week each class will enjoy a 15 minute animal encounter in our classroom. One of our Ambassador Animal educators will bring 1-2 animals to meet our ZooLittles. They will have the chance to touch most of the animals if they choose, and teachers will facilitate open-ended questions, noticing, and making connections. ZooLittles will also have full access to the Zoo even when the Zoo is closed to the public for the winter. 

Yes. All ZooLittles must be fully independent in the bathroom in order to attend ZooLittles. 

This means they will not require help pulling down/up pants nor wiping themselves. 

We encourage everyone to use the bathroom before we head out for forest adventures as there are no bathrooms available in the forest. 

We will offer a nutritious snack of an apple and a cheese stick, and we often have additional snacks such as pretzels, animal crackers, fruit/grain bars, or goldfish crackers to supplement. 

Children are welcome to, and often do, bring their own additional snacks or even a lunch box. Playing takes a lot of energy, so we encourage breakfast at home to be a slow-burning meal. If breakfast is an issue at home, feel free to send it with your child and they may eat it when their body tells them it’s time. 

Any food allergies will be confidentially shared prior to our first day. 

Both structure and flexibility are important to us. We value spontaneity as well as consistency. 

A sample day could look like this: 

  • 8:30-9:00 – Flexible drop off time and outdoor play near the classroom. 
  • 9:30-10:00 – Playful learning continued. 
  • 10:00 – Morning Meeting and snack
  • 10:15 – Prepare for exploring either the forest or the Zoo. (This can take an extended amount of time as we support children in learning how to put on and take off their own outerwear.)
  • Planned and spontaneous learning in the forest or Zoo. 
  • 11:45 – Transitioning back to the classroom area. 
  • 12:00-12:30 – Flexible parent/caregiver pickup time while playful learning continues outside, inside, or near our classroom. 

Our ratio for 4’s and young 5’s is 1 teacher for every 6 students, with a cap of 12. 

Our ratio for 3’s is 1 teacher for every 5 students, with a cap of 10 students. 

 Participants must be the minimum age of the program by the first day. 

In other words – to participate in the 3 year old program, participants must be 3 by September 3. 

 

4’s and young 5’s meet M/W/F from 8:30am-12:30pm

3’s meet T/Th from 8:30am-12:30pm

2024-25

Fall 2024

September 4 & 5: Open Houses

Sept. 9 & 10: First Days

October 28 & 29 – Autumn Seasonal Celebrations

November 22, 27, 28 – Closed for Holiday

December 19 & 20: Winter Seasonal Celebration

December 23-January 3: Holiday Break

2025

January 6: ZooLittles resumes

January 20: Closed for MLK Day

March 20 & 21: Spring Seasonal Celebration

March 31-April 4: Closed for Spring Break

May 16: Last day of ZooLittles *Subject to change, will be finalized by August 24. 

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Great Lakes Rare Turtles

Great Lakes Conservation
About

Turtles are in trouble around the world and locally. The Great Lakes Rare Turtle Program addresses on threats that are existential and widespread for Blanding’s, Spotted, Wood, and Box Turtles. The John Ball Zoo is working wth partners to study head starting as a conservation tool, protecting nesting habitat for Wood Turtles from raccoons, and researching the distribution and status of Spotted Turtles in Southwest Michigan. The zoo partners with local community scientists to indentify road crossings that pose a threat to Blanding’s and other species of turtles.

Partners

Poweshiek Skipperling

Oarisma powesheik

Facts
Habitat

Grassland, Wetlands (inland)

Threat Range

Critically Endangered

Region

Extant (resident) - Canada (Manitoba); United States (Wisconsin, Michigan), Possibly Extinct - United States (South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa), Extinct - United States (Indiana, Illinois)

Screenshot 2023-02-15 at 10.34.14 AM

Mitchell's Satyr

Great Lakes Conservation
About

The prairie fens of southern Michigan are a stronghold for the Endangered Mitchell’s Satyr butterfly. We are working with Michigan State University, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Natural Features Inventory, and the Kalamazoo Nature Center to develp to propagate this rare butterfly. Offspring reared in the program may be used to supplement wild Mitchell’s Satyr populations.

Partners

Freshwater Mussels

Great Lakes Conservation
About

Freshwater Mussels are one of the most fastenating groups of animals. Unfortunately they are also one of the most imperiled groups on animals with more than 70% of North American species listed as Threatened or Endangered. Our own Grand River is home to an impressive 32 different species, 19 of which are listed. The John Ball Zoo is working with scientists at Grand Valley State University to evaluate Grand River Mussel populations. During the 2023 field season, the team documented over 1,000 individuals from 27 different species. This includes the Endangered Snuffbox Mussel.

Partners

Habitat Hero

Community Science
About

The Habitat Hero program is focused on creating better urban pollinator habitat by giving away native plants to west Michigan community members. By giving away native trees, shrubs and wildflowers, we are inviting community members to provide crucial nectar sources for pollinators as well as become more involved in pollinator conservation in their own yards and gardens.

Partners

Kestrel Nest Box Monitoring

Community Science
About

American Kestrels are one of North America’s most abundant raptors, but their populations have been steadily declining since the mid 1960’s. This year we have begun participating in the American Kestrel Partnership, run by the Peregrine Fund, to monitor local kestrel nest boxes and help better understand Kestrel population trends and biology.

Partners

Grand River Sucker Monitoring

Community Science
About

Suckers are a very important, and often overlooked, group of migratory fish that inhabit the Grand River. Every spring they migrate upriver from Lake Michigan to spawn in tributaries of the Grand River. We are joining a project started by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to determine how changes in temperature and flow of the streams impact the spawning behavior of the suckers.

Partners

Turtle Road Mortality Surveys

Community Science
About

One of the major threats to turtle populations is mortality associated with roads and vehicles. We have a team of trained volunteers who survey predetermined road crossing sites and report the number of turtles they find at these locations. We plan to use the data to assist in conservation decision-making regarding roads and turtles in west Michigan.

Partners

Michigan Butterfly Network

Community Science
About

As part of our pollinator conservation work, we want to understand how native butterfly populations are changing over time. By training community members to use the Michigan Butterfly Network monitoring protocol, we are offering passionate people the opportunity to help contribute to our understanding of butterfly populations in west Michigan.

Partners

Bat Surveys

Community Science
About

West Michigan is home to several species of rare and threatened species of bats. This summer we will have a group of volunteers collecting bat occurrence data by driving predetermined routes and using special recorders and software to identify bat species. The data will be submitted to the North American Bat Monitoring Project as part of their ongoing analysis of bat abundance and occupancy across North America.

Partners

Massasauga Rattlesnake

Great Lakes Conservation
About

The Massasauga is Michigan’s only venomous snake and plays an important role in the ecosystem. Unfortunately, these snakes are declining in numbers and are listed as Threatened. The John Ball Zoo helps to educate the public on the plight of the Massasauga and helps conservation biologists study them in the field. Currently, we are assisting Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, Grand Valley State University, and Sarett Nature Center develop new technologies to monitor this secretive snake species.

Partners

City Nature Challenge

Community Science
About

The City Nature Challenge is one of the world’s largest annual community science events. Started by iNaturalist in 2016 as a friendly competition between the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, this bioblitz has grown into a global phenomenon with over 500 cities participating. Taking place over the last weekend in April each year, the City Nature Challenge is all about getting outside and documenting the biodiversity in and around our communities while building and strengthening relationships with other people who are passionate about conserving local species. The West Michigan City Nature Challenge is Michigan’s only City Nature Challenge event, and encompasses Allegan, Barry, Kent and Ottawa Counties. We are excited to partner with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and many other local organizations to engage our communities in four days of exploring our biodiverse outdoor spaces.

Partners

Michigan Area

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Freshwater Mussels

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Habitat Hero

5 of 12

Kestrel Nest Box Monitoring

6 of 12

Grand River Sucker Monitoring

7 of 12

Turtle Road Mortality Surveys

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Michigan Butterfly Network

9 of 12

Bat Surveys

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Massasauga Rattlesnake

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City Nature Challenge

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Get Involved!