ST. LOUIS • The orangutans were ready for their snack.
The food delivery on this particular day was coming from 3- and 4-year-olds. With a wagon full of pumpkins, lots of questions and their teachers in tow, they made their way down to The Wild, where Merah, Rubih and Robert B were waiting.
For five children this year, the St. Louis Zoo is their preschool.
The new half-day, fee-based program began in September and integrates science and animal themes across the curriculum for children ages 3 to 5 to work on science, math and literacy skills.
The class is based in the lower level of The Living World building, but the kids explore the zoo every day by getting outside, meeting a Zoo employee and encountering an animal.
The preschool is a natural extension the zoo’s educational mission, connecting young children early in their lives to nature and the understanding of their place in it, said Laura Seger, the zoo’s preschool director and early childhood programs coordinator.
“This is the most important time to make those connections,” she said.
When the preschoolers visited the orangutans recently, they brought the animals the pumpkins they had previously used for measuring and other activities.
They watched the zookeepers put out the pumpkins filled with snacks while the three orangutans were kept somewhere else. They talked about how putting food inside the pumpkins made it more like a puzzle for the animals.
Stephanie Braccini, zoological manager for the great apes, was ready for what she said were “crazy good questions.”
“What’s that smell?” “What kind of treats do they like?” “How old is he?”
For children who have an intense interest in animals, the preschool at the zoo fosters that passion, Seger said.
Teachers will create lessons based on the interests of their preschoolers. They have kept journals, with pictures or the early stages of writing, as they observe the great apes, heard how zookeepers work and learned about the symbiotic relationship of hippos and the fish that eat the hippos’ feces.
And since this group started in September, many of their questions when visiting the animals have centered around one topic: poop.
Their self-selected area of focus has included learning from the horticulture team how they use animal manure on the grounds and checking out different forms of animal droppings by matching a plush toy with its poop.
On the day the children visited the orangutans, another poop question was raised.
“How do you know whose is whose?” one boy asked. Braccini’s answer elicited giggles.
Glitter. If they put sparkles in one of the orangutans’ food, then they know the “sparkle poop” belongs to that animal.
“Ohhhhh,” the kids responded.
When they are not visiting animals, the preschoolers are based in what’s called the Monsanto Education Gallery, which opened in 2013 with a $2 million donation from the company.
The space has all of that of a typical preschool room, with books, child-size tables, chairs and cubbies. But it also includes a small theater space, specialized microscopes, a nature water table and playhouse with bird feeders, a garden and pretend composter. A corner also allows them a place to care for animals.
When preschool is not in session, the space serves as a place for children to explore with their parents while visiting the zoo. They also host other education programs, such as the popular Camp Joey, the summer day camp for children 4 to 5 years old, as well as birthday parties.
The preschool’s teachers have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related science degree. With 18 spaces for each session, the teacher student ratio will 1-to-6.
Some zoos house preschool or day care programs specifically for staff members’ children, but some, like St. Louis, have developed a program that is based around animals and nature.
When Heidi Pieroni heard about the new preschool, it sounded like it would be good for her daughter Ella, who is 3. She loves animals and is the only one in her family who gets their backyard chickens into her arms.
Because the school is only three hours a day twice a week, the family hired a nanny to help make the schedule work.
Pieroni likes that Ella can pursue her interest in such an active way at the preschool and says that she is learning so much each day.
“Her favorite thing in the world is animals,” Pieroni said. “It just seemed like the perfect fit.”
The zoo will begin accepting applications for the 2015-16 year on Feb. 1. Interviews of parents or primary caregivers are required for admission.