September 12, 2018

By Emma Donnelly, Saint Louis Zoo Educator

Ask most parents and the idea of camping with small children seems daunting —what if there are bugs? What if there aren't enough activities to keep them busy? What if they have a meltdown? Taking small children camping seems like no small feat, but the pros far outweigh the cons.

At the Saint Louis Zoo Preschool, we realize the importance of children having opportunities to explore nature. We wanted our families to have a camping experience that would foster a love of nature and a desire for discovery in their everyday lives. In our classroom, the preschoolers spend much of their school day outside exploring. Therefore, we not only wanted our preschoolers to experience the outdoors in a new way, but to take and share those lessons and passions with their families. Our goal is not to just have our preschoolers care for and about nature, but to encourage their families to be involved in the process. So, in an effort to engage our preschoolers and their families together, we decided to host a preschool camping trip.

Our families arrived at Reis Biological Station in Steelville, MO, early one Saturday morning and were greeted by bright sunshine and choruses of birds. We took a short hike up to a prairie and wetland area, flipping rocks and logs along the way, where we found different insects, worms, and a midland brown snake that the preschoolers were able to view up close and touch. Flipping over logs and rocks became a popular activity for the entire weekend as our preschoolers became fascinated with the ecosystem that exists underground. Equipped with nets and pond viewers, our preschoolers found salamander eggs, toad eggs, newts, tadpoles, and water insects in the ponds at the top of the hill. They played in the prairie, chasing butterflies with nets and finding flowers and rocks, and theymight have stayed for hours if it hadn't been time for lunch.

After lunch, our troop explored the Huzzah creek, which was a short walk from our campsite. As one preschooler remarked, "I really liked when we went swimming. I liked that we were catching bugs together." For three hours, which is as long as a normal preschool day in our classroom, the students explored the shallow waters catching crayfish, sculpin, water pennies, and more. Every find brought excitement as children showed off their treasures to everyone around them, beaming with pride each time they had a new critter to display. Wading out into the deeper currents was a welcomed challenge, and older siblings cheered on our preschoolers as they attempted these feats. The successes they had in Huzzah creek were apparent from the smiles on every child's face as we headed back to our campsite.

All of these activities were meant to share our love of the outdoors with our preschoolers and our families, and to give them the confidence to explore nature independently. We wanted to show them that exploring the outdoors could be as simple as walking outside and digging in the dirt, and that camping was just another tool the parents could use to inspire a love of nature in their children. Some of our families came to the trip with prior camping experience, while others had never gone camping before, like Avery's family.

Avery is new to the 4- and 5-year-old class and the Saint Louis Zoo Preschool and had never been camping before this trip. As her mother, Jessica, shared, "We had not taken the children on a camping trip. We were a bit nervous, but excited all the same." Jessica wanted Avery and her younger brother, David, to love nature and camping and felt that Avery gained much from this trip. Surrounded by her preschool friends, Avery thrived, finding different animals, touching a speckled kingsnake found in the prairie, catching tadpoles in the ponds, and seeing a Luna moth during our night exploration. "Avery now knows how to safely explore nature while respecting animals and their habitats," said Jessica."Our family probably would have waited years more to go camping but this trip has given us the confidence to plan another trip soon."

Other preschoolers, like Christopher, had been camping before with their families, but his mother, Erin, said that "the planned activities and specific attention to connecting with nature was different than anything they had done."

Christopher has been a preschool student at the Saint Louis Preschool for three years. He began in our 3- and 4-year-old class and graduated to the 4- and 5-year-old class, where we have seen him flourish into an insightful, curious leader that loves to take risks. In a time when some parents are hesitant to allow their child to take risks and get messy, Christopher's family has embraced his adventurous spirit and gives him the room to learn and grow from challenges. "Christopher saw firsthand how exciting it is to explore the outdoors," said Erin. It was hard to say what Christopher's favorite part of the trip was, because he said several times that he would want to live at Reis! We watched as Christopher put his all into every activity we had planned, from flipping logs to exploring the creek, and we observed as he helped his friends and family climb a difficult cliff side to explore a cave. He marched to the front of the group, tested several ways to get up, and helped others find the confidence to climb the rocky, uneven hill.

One of the best things Christopher experienced during this trip was the chance to try fresh, spring-fed watercress. Along the path to the Huzzah creek, there was a small spring house connected to a bridge over the flowing fresh water. In the water, there was a floating mass of beautiful watercress. I the Saint Louis Zoo Preschool director, called Christopher and his younger sister, Shelby, over to try the watercress, after I had mentioned it on our walk to the Huzzah creek earlier. Christopher "was fascinated that it didn't cost anything and is a healthy snack that we can just pick out of the water," said Erin. "We've never seen him so excited about eating greens!" He even took a few sprigs with him to eat with his lunch on the car ride home!

Every preschooler and family member came away with a different experience, and we are honored that we were able to share these moments with them. Watching the excitement of discovery, the happiness of freedom, and contentment of relaxation made us at the Saint Louis Zoo Preschool remember why we wanted to have this trip in the first place. Our camping trip was 26 hours long, but we know that the experiences we all had at Reis Biological Station will stay with us for a lifetime.

For more information about the Preschool, including registration deadlines, visit here: Saint Louis Zoo Preschool