Nature Start

Learn to Play, Play to Learn

Nature Explore logoYoung 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™ ideals are incorporated in our zoo exhibits, community outreach initiatives, and our pioneering professional development program.

Hamill Family Play Zoo is a Certified Nature Explore Classroom.

Register for NatureStart™Course Here

Children Are Natural Explorers

Whether they know it or not, young children use the scientific method with every new encounter. They continuously explore and question the world around them…
"Hmmmm, I wonder what will happen if I move this rock?"

They hypothesize…
"I bet there’s something under there, maybe something crawly."

They draw conclusions…
"Wow! Look at all those bugs with lots of little legs. I wonder if they live under there because they like things quiet and dark."

Often, children will take these observations a step further, and truly become champions for nature…
Maybe I’ll put the rock back now so the bugs can go back to what they were doing.

Go Play...Outside!

In addition to fostering environmental stewardship, spending time in nature is essential for children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.

Yet, urban sprawl, growing concerns about children’s safety, a technology explosion, and a trend toward structured and indoor play activities, separate children from nature.

Families yearn for a safe way children can experience and enjoy nature. Early childhood educators need help to develop high-quality programs and curricula. So, CZS developed NatureStart, a one-of-a-kind approach to early childhood education, guided by nearly 20 years of research, real-world observation, and evaluation of best practices.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Award # MA-10-14-0434-14).

NatureStart™ at Brookfield Zoo

The Hamill Family Play Zoo puts into practice the knowledge of how children play and learn in nature, and is recognized as one of the first nature play learning spaces of its kind in the United States.

Conservation Psychology research is a field of study that was born at CZS in 2001 when we opened the Hamill Family Play Zoo. This 15,000 squarefoot hands-on exhibit is surrounded by two acres of outdoor discovery gardens, featuring more than 300 animals. In the Play Zoo, educators provide developmentally appropriate nature play programs for children, and they help parents, caregivers, and educators support children’s nature play experience. Each year, more than 300,000 children and their families visit the Hamill Family Play Zoo where they explore live animals, plants, and nature.

The Play Zoo also serves as a real-world, learn-through-play laboratory. Twelve years of study and evaluation with countless Play Zoo families and preschool groups, has helped to shape and inform our professional development t raining programs.

“I want to be a vet or a zookeeper when I get older. At the Play Zoo you can take your pets to the doctor. They can get x-rays and you can make them feel better!”
Hamill Family Play Zoo “regular” Chase, age 8.
For his birthday, in lieu of gifts, Chase asked guests to bring needed items like art supplies to the Play Zoo.

Our Neighborhoods

In partnership with neighborhood community centers, parks, daycare centers, and the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the NatureStart™ model is inspiring and teaching children where they live and play. By developing a model to be shared outside the zoo in our communities, and with informal educators around the world, our reach increases exponentially and our ability to inspire earliest learners to love and protect nature is virtually limitless!


Each semester, students studying early childhood education at the Erickson Institute and Morton Community College participate in internship programs here at Brookfield Zoo. Building upon their studies, they learn firsthand about nature play, working with children in a family, rather than in a classroom. While facilitating learning in the Play Zoo, students gain expertise using child-supportive, child-led learning techniques, skills they will take with them wherever their careers take them.

Teaching Educators to Play

NatureStart™ professional development training helps informal educators in museums, zoos, aquariums, gardens, and nature centers provide quality early childhood nature play programs for children and their families.

The training provides comprehensive, hands-on professional development, nature play curriculum, online distance learning, 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.

Training Outcomes

Our goal is to expand the reach of NatureStart™ even further so that zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and other informal learning institutions around the globe—organizations that already reach millions of children and families—will gain the training they need to inspire nature play learning with their youngest participants.
Evaluations consistently show that NatureStart™ participants:

  • Feel validated, confident, and excited to promote nature education.
  • Understand how to use nature for inquiry-based learning.
  • Are able to create engaging activities and environments.
  • Network with other educators.
  • Adapt what they learned to the unique needs of their organization.
Special Teacher Class in Partnership with Morton College

ECE-140-H1 (119612)
Nature, Art & the Young Child
Saturdays, September 19 & 26, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Classes at Brookfield Zoo

In partnership with Morton College, this course will focus on expanding the student's ability to design and facilitate developmentally appropriate nature-based art experiences and settings in programs for infants to early elementary grades in formal and non-formal settings.

For more information, contact Marilyn Brink at or visit Morton College Early Childhood Education.



“The NatureStart professional development training especially has been helpful for our volunteers and parents who have learned to let children determine their own path— to be still and let children explore. The program was incredibly valuable to us. So many ideas were inspirational, many of which have come to fruition and many more that we plan to implement.”

Julianne Larsen
Park Ranger Interpretation,
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana

“NatureStart has become something that we are, not something that we do. We have made changes and have personalized what we learned to our own unique institution. Our staff is so excited and motivated by this training! The families really share time together and are close to nature.”

Carolina Perez Castro
Recreational Activities Supervisor
Fundación Temaikèn, Argentina

“Our team really enjoyed and found value in the NatureStart training program. A particular strength was that the program was broken out over a period of time. We would learn a new idea, go back to the zoo and try it out, come back to the training and report on successes and challenges, refine, and try again.”

Tami Romejko
Education Supervisor,
Cosley Zoo, Illinois

Check out the roster of past participants

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.(Award # MP-00-10-0056-10)