JBZ’s New Winter in the Woods Program Lets Preschoolers Come for the Day, or for the Week

New this season at John Ball Zoo, the Sprouts program expands to add Winter in the Woods. This outdoor-based educational program, developed by Tahlia Hoogerland, offers three- and four-year-olds the chance to learn through free play and exploration of their outdoor surroundings.

Kids outside at John Ball Zoo Sprouts program

I’ve been looking forward to my daughter being old enough for their Sprouts program, as she loves the zoo. When I caught wind that they were adding this new program for 2020, I encouraged a grandma to enroll her for several sessions as a Christmas present. 

Preschoolers Brave the Wild and Learn Through Free-Range Exploration

In addition to the Christmas present from Grandma, my daughter and I were were both invited by the zoo to attend an additional session so I could observe the entire experience. Here’s how it went:

The morning started with checking into the classroom and being greeted by Miss Tahlia and Miss Sondra. Classes are capped at 10 students, and we had a full house the day I was visiting.

After sign in, kids gathered for Circle Time. (Typically Circle Time is done outside, but since it was below freezing the day we visited, it was held inside).

The theme of this week was Scientific Senses and the petite “Scientists” (as Miss Tahlia called them) would learn by seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting (if we found some clean snow).

Then Miss Tahlia and Miss Sondra began their magic by somehow assisting all the students into their winter gear in record time. Snows pants, mittens, hats, and boots are a must, as the program whole-heartedly follows the notion there’s no such thing as bad weather when you have the right clothes. 

John Ball Zoo Sprouts Program includes Winter in the Woods

We hiked up the hill ready to explore the woods and use our senses to learn. We heard crunchy, frozen leaves beneath our feet. We smelled some evergreen boughs. A few brave scientists even tasted some clean snow. We felt smooth birch trunks and rough oak bark. We saw red berries.

The children are welcome to roam, crawl around, and climb. Basically, if a kid is capable, they are allowed to do it. If they can’t– no worries; teachers will not pick up or place students on higher platforms, but instead offer guidance, encouragement, or other options for exploration.

Typically the class aims to spend a whole hour outside, but we cut ours a little short given the temperatures (and a small mishap with a not quite frozen puddle).

Special Animal Guests Visit the JBZ Sprouts Class at Every Session

Back in the classroom the kids were given a snack and water. After snack Miss Tahlia read some stories about the different senses animals have. Snakes smell with their tongues, skunks have night vision, and butterflies taste with their feet.

Then came what many of the kids were looking forward to: animal encounters (caregivers are also invited for this portion of the class)! Each week two different animals visit the Winter in the Woods classroom who tie into the week’s theme. The kids settle down and a hush falls as the Sprouts get ready to meet the special guests.

During hibernation week we met Otis the owl, an animal who stays awake during the winter, and Harding the turtle, who does hibernate during the winter (and can breath through her butt!).

During Exploring with Senses we met Sassafras the Sonoran gopher snake, who uses her tongue to smell, and Rosa, the Chilean rose hair tarantula. Rosa doesn’t see very well, so she uses her sense of touch to navigate her surroundings. Rosa stayed snug in her tank while the kids were welcome to observe with their eyes up close, but they were happy to get a chance to give Sassafras some gentle strokes. 

My daughter is excited to meet even more animal friends at future classes.

There Is Still Time For Your Little Adventurer to Take a Walk in the Woods

Winter in the Woods are held in the mornings from 9:00 AM – 11;30 AM, Tuesday – Friday each week now until February 14, and then with dates on February 18, 19, 27, and 28.

Upcoming themes are: 

  • Animal Tracks (January 28 – January 31)
  • Finding Food (February 4 – February 7) 
  • Totally Trees (February 11 – February 14) 
  • Seasonal Signs (February 18 & 19) 
  • Change Happens (February 27 & 28)

One of the best things about this program is it’s flexible schedule. You can opt for a single session, go for a whole week, or pick and choose as your calendar allows. This is a drop-off program, so kids do need to be potty-trained in order to attend.

You can easily enroll online or call 616-336-4300 to register your child(ren).

John Ball Zoo is located at 1300 W Fulton Street, Grand Rapids, MI 49504.

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