NatureStart™ Professional Development

Nature play and exploration is vital for children's physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. We live in the Chicago area, and when most people think of our city, skyscrapers come to mind; industry, transportation, museums, sports. But our city was founded with the motto: Urbs in Horto--city in a garden--and we are dedicated to helping urban-dwelling children find joy and learning by playing in nature. 

NatureStart emphasizes connecting with nature at multiple scales, whether exploring a ditch, visiting a favorite tree right outside your door, watching ants, digging for worms, or visiting a local natural area. We find nature where it exists around us and create new opportunities for nature play and exploration. 

NatureStart Professional Development is an innovative, competency-based training program that develops educators' skills and practices in providing high-quality childhood nature programming. We emphasize skills and approaches that link children, families, and educators with the natural world around them through play and exploration.

Click here to register for our professional development courses 

Read more below about NatureStart Professional Development, the NatureStart Network, and how you can bring nature play into your own organization: 

NatureStart LadybugProfessional Development: Teaching Educators to Play

Learning to PlayLearning to Play, Playing to Learn: Young children learn through play. The Chicago Zoological Society’s NatureStart™ model uses children’s innate curiosity about the natural world as a way to foster learning. By inviting children to explore and play in the natural world, they gain knowledge and skills, and become inspired to protect their planet and its inhabitants.

NatureStart™ is a professional development program that trains informal educators in museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers, along with other professionals who interact with young children and families, to develop and facilitate early childhood nature play programs, create play settings for nature-based early learning, and engage and interact with young children and their families to foster lifelong connections with nature. NatureStart™ ideals are incorporated in our zoo exhibits, community outreach initiatives, and our pioneering professional development programs.Learn-to-Play-2.png

The NatureStart™ training provides comprehensive, hands-on professional development, nature play curriculum, and peer support. It also includes a thorough evaluation and plan for sustainability. Participants consistently report dramatic increases in their knowledge, skills, confidence, perspectives, and practice. What’s more, NatureStart™ training has fostered a network of professionals engaged in advocating for and implementing early childhood nature programming. We offer both regional training opportunities and an onsite training course at Brookfield Zoo. The training program is approved for credit from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Conservation Education Certificate.


Click here to learn more about our Professional Development courses and to register 

NatureStart LadybugNature Play in Education: College Courses and Externships

Learn-to-Play-2.pngEarly Childhood Nature Assistant: This college certificate program is offered by Morton College. This curriculum is designed to provide basic knowledge regarding child growth and development and nature-based developmentally appropriate programming for those working with children in zoos, park districts, and museums.

Nature, Art & the Young Child: As part of the Early Childhood Nature Assistant certificate program, this course will explore the role of art in connecting young children to nature. Incorporating art as an extension of a learning experience (the process) will be compared and contrasted with using art to teach a subject (the product). Creativity, self-expression, and an appreciation of nature are compatible with the young child’s developing thinking skills and course focus will expand the student’s ability to design and facilitate developmentally appropriate nature-based art experiences and settings in formal and informal programs for infants to third grade. Students will consider how nature-based art can be incorporated across the curriculum and content areas to enhance each child’s connection to the natural world around them, intellectually and aesthetically. Lecture one hour per week. To register for this class, you must be enrolled at Morton College and register for the Nature, Art, and the Young Child course (ECE-140).

Young Child as a Scientist: As part of the Early Childhood Nature Assistant certificate program, This course takes science outside of the typical classroom environment and engages the learner in new venues and experiences that bring science to life. Using the framework of how children construct knowledge and build an understanding of their world, students will experience inquiry-based learning and the interactive process of discovery, observation, testing and theory-building. Using nature as the foundation for developing science concepts, the student will engage in hands-on authentic learning experiences in parallel to the IELDS and National Science Teacher Association key principles. Lecture one hour per week. To register for this class, you must be enrolled at Morton College and register for the Young Child as a Scientist course (ECE-220).

Learning to PlayEarly Childhood Nature Assistant Externship Opportunity: In partnership with Morton College, the Chicago Zoological Society offers an externship in Early Childhood Education at Hamill Family Play Zoo and CZS’s off-site libraries and/or organization partners that provides students with an interactive learning experience. The purpose of play experience in this area of the Zoo is for children, aged birth-10, and their families to provide fun and meaningful ways of developing caring relationships with animals, nature and to provide adults with the approaches and encouragement to help children develop caring attitudes toward the natural world.

Visit Morton's Early Childhood Education page for more information about this internship opportunity and how to apply.

NatureStart LadybugPartners in Play: NatureStart™ in action at Brookfield Zoo

Playing to LearnThe Chicago Zoological Society has a longstanding commitment to connecting young children and their families to nature. In 2001, we opened the Hamill Family Play Zoo, a groundbreaking exhibit firmly rooted in an understanding of conservation psychology and early childhood development. The exhibit features 15,000 square feet of hands-on opportunities and is surrounded by two acres of outdoor discovery gardens and more than 300 animals. Children can garden, play in the woods, build forts, make mud pies, pretend to be animals, and care for animals in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them.

Our multidisciplinary team of educators at the Hamill Family Play Zoo are known as "Play Partners" by the children who visit us, and that nickname effectively describes our approach: we treat children as our partners in learning, and we learn through play. The Play Zoo is a real-world, learning-through-play laboratory.

In addition to our day-to-day nature play taking place at the Play Zoo, we offer early childhood classes for our families looking for an opportunity to experience wildlife and nature side-by-side with their youngest adventurers--age 15 months to 3 years. More information about these classes can be found here.

NatureStart Ladybug

For additional details please contact David Becker at

NatureStart participants that do not show up for their registered session or choose to leave early on one or more training days will not be granted a refund.  


NatureStart Professional Development is designed and led by the Chicago Zoological Society and provides research-based professional practice in conservation and inclusive nature play programming. We have assembled a dedicated, talented, and multidisciplinary team of educators with backgrounds in the arts, sciences, early childhood education, and informal learning. We teach how to deliver effective programs and environments that increase young children's opportunities for play, exploration, and discovery in nature.

Check out the 2019-2020 Courses