What To Know Before You Go

We are so excited for LEAP sessions to start this week, and we hope you are, too! Please read on to find out what to expect at LEAP, and what we're expecting of you and/or the caregiver attending with your child.

Let your child lead the way.

Most of the class will consist of free play among 6-8 different stations. Some kids might hang out at the same station for half the class filling and emptying buckets of beans, while others may run around and continuously sample each station. Watch what your child is drawn to, and then join in! 

Check out the theme for each class.

Each week will investigate pollinators: bugs, birds, and bats! Where do bugs live? Why do bats stay up at night? We’ll explore wings, light, and all things spring! As we play, flowers will bloom and animals will come out of hibernation. We have new adventures ahead!

We will end class each week by reading a related story, having a cool animal experience, or going on a nature walk. An animal experience can mean getting to meet an animal up close or watching some fun enrichment be given out to an animal that lives in the building we’re in that week. The themes are listed on the blog, so check it out to see what else we’ll be exploring this season!

Dress for a mess. 

Playing with natural materials sometimes means getting dirty, be it digging in the dirt, painting with spaghetti, or creating with clay.  If you and your child are dressed for a bit of paint and dirt, then you can dig right into the activities and not worry about the clothes.

Dress for the weather.

What would a nature play program be if it didn’t include a little time IN nature? We’ve all been cooped up all winter and we’re ready for spring! At the Children’s Zoo, we try to set as many stations up outside as we can when the weather allows. We won’t go out when it’s not safe, but we like to take any opportunity to get outside! Occasionally, we will end class with an outdoor nature walk, rain or shine.

Enjoy this special time with your child.

LEAP is centered on nature play- playing in and around nature as well as with natural materials- so it's a great opportunity to take a break from technology. We’d like everyone to unplug for the hour that you’re at LEAP each week and ask that you keep phone use to a minimum during class. Explore the fun materials and the animals surrounding you, and share in your child's sense of wonder, seeing the world through their eyes.

You’ll see us taking pictures each week on our program camera. We take photos so you don’t have to take as many and can focus on playing with your child. We use these photos on our LEAP blog, so check out the blog each week to see if your child is in the spotlight! We also share all the photos we take throughout the series in May, once class is finished.

Join the LEAP dialogue!

Feel free to chat with staff and fellow participants at LEAP, and follow the blog to learn more about nature and child-directed play, share your ideas and feedback, and get inspired to extend your outdoor and nature play experiences beyond the class. Nothing makes us happier than hearing about how you incorporate what we’ve done at LEAP together into your life at home! 

Throughout the series, we will share photos, discuss nature play and its benefits, give you some activity how-tos, and hopefully inspire you to extend your nature play experiences beyond LEAP class! 


See you soon!

The Lincoln Park Zoo LEAP Team

That's a wrap on winter!

Though it may not feel like spring yet, it’s beginning to look like spring outside! Warmer temperatures, the sun shining in the sky and small buds sprouting from the ground indicate the changing seasons. As we transition from winter to spring, we want to share some of our favorite moments getting to know all of you over the past nine weeks.  We’ve had so much fun and we hope you have too!

From playing music for the gorillas to dressing up like some of our favorite animals, we’ve enjoyed so many adventures together! Here are a few of our favorite moments:

It’s been so gratifying and inspiring to see everyone—toddlers, parents, animals, and us, too—grow and change over the past two months.  We’ve seen increases in confidence, language, attention span, creativity, and independence across the board.

The free play format of LEAP can sometimes make it difficult to assess growth and learning, but you as parents and caregivers are well-equipped to evaluate change in your child. We ask that you take a few moments to consider the following, thinking back to January before LEAP began, to now:

Independence and self-directed play

  • Does your child direct her own play? Is she confident in choosing which station to explore and for how long? Does he need encouragement or help getting started?

Confidence and comfort in trying new things

  • Is your child interested and excited to discover a new material in the sensory bin or a new process art project? Does your child want to explore things he or she didn’t before? Are you seeking sensory experiences outside of LEAP?

Attention span

  • Have you found your child stays at a station longer than before? Does he spend more time doing something when he chooses the activity?

New vocabulary

  • Have you noticed new vocabulary words in conversations with other children, with you, or with teachers or other adults? Are you hearing them use words to describe their actions? Is your child using adjectives to describe how things sound, look, smell, or feel like more often?

Creativity and imagination

Is your child using the materials in innovative, creative, and out of the box ways? Does she pretend she’s a veterinarian checking up on the animals? Does he enjoy acting like a chimpanzee and walking around on all fours? Don’t underestimate the value of imaginary play and remember that “make believe” has been shown to strengthen a wide variety of mental abilities.

We’d love to hear how you answered the questions above so we can better understand the impact LEAP has on your child’s learning and development. It can take a while before these changes become evident, so keep an eye out for change in your child over time.

We hope you and your child both got something out of the LEAP experience these past nine weeks and that you are feeling more confident and inspired to make nature play a part of your daily routine. As staff, we know we learn something new every LEAP season!

Hopefully we will see you at our Spring session in the Regenstein African Journey and the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo (hooray for outdoor play!). If you haven’t signed up yet, there’s still time! Click here to register for Spring.

Looking forward to seeing you all around the zoo!

The Lincoln Park Zoo LEAP Team

Little Scientists


Children are naturally curious--they want to learn everything they can about the world around them. They do this by poking, pushing, sniffing, tasting, dropping, shaking, throwing, and touching everything in sight. Through this exploration, children are investigating how things work. Your little scientist is learning through play and establishing the foundation on which many important science concepts will be built upon. 

Science can be thought of in many different ways. Some people view science as the memorizing fact and analyzing data and associate it with teacher focused instruction. On the contrary, science is best described as the process of discovery, the construction of our understanding of how things move, what they’re made of, and how everything is connected. These discoveries build our basis of understanding the natural world, and they begin at birth (Trundle, 2009).

When your child attends LEAP, they are exposed to a highly stimulating environment, one that encourages unstructured play and hands-on investigation. At the sensory bin, when your child pours water from one bucket to another, he explores the concepts of space, cause and effect and measurement. He learns…

  • What happens when I tip the bucket that is filled with water?

  • Does a big bucket hold more water than a small bucket?

  • How is using a bucket with holes different than one without holes?

  • Which weighs more- a bucket of rocks or a bucket of rice?

As your daughter gets messy in the mud and sticks her hands in bowls of paint, she explores textures, colors and patterns and she has a blast while getting dirty.

We emphasize choice at LEAP and allow mixing and matching of materials across stations to encourage discovery. Children experiment with what works and what doesn’t. They wonder…

  • What will a solid block look like on the light table?

  • Do leaves and feather look different when I hold them up in front of the light?

  • How many blocks can I stack before the tower falls over?

  • Do musical instruments sound different depending on where I am in the building?

All of these questions happen internally at this age, and teach children about light and dark, shadows, shapes, balance and sound.

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Each station brings a new topic to explore, new objects to manipulate, and exciting discoveries to be made. These discoveries are critical in establishing a foundation for understanding future scientific concepts.  They impact a child’s ability to problem solve and positively influence literacy and math skills (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007). This process of scientific discovery takes time, and requires repeated exposure to the same materials and frequent opportunities for learning. Children can revisit the same activity, such as building, week to week, and deepen their understanding each time.

Exposing children to various materials and allowing time for unstructured play is critical to early science literacy.  As parents and educators, our role is a simple but important one: provide opportunities for your child to engage with the natural world and engage in it with them. By making verbal observations of their actions and yours, you are expanding their knowledge of the world around them as well as their vocabulary. Laugh and get messy. Try new things together. Let them choose and watch as they investigate and experiment. Have fun with it!

Thank you all for allowing us to be a part of such an important and incredible time in your child’s life and for playing in the dirt and getting covered in paint with us, we love every moment of it!  After all, it’s all in the name of science!

--Written by Emily Van Laan


Duschl, Richard A.; Schweingruber, Heidi A.; & Shouse, Andrew W. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

 Trundle, Dr. Kathy Cabe. (2009). Best practices in science education: Teaching science during the early childhood years. National Geographic Hampton-Brown.