Episode 184 – The Buffalo Zoo runs a Reggio-inspired preschool program that uses the zoo as a learning environment. In this episode, we get the opportunity to chat with Anna Ileto, Program Specialist, about what it means to run a program that collaborates with zookeepers and involves polar bears! She also shares tips on how teachers can leverage a child’s natural curiosity as a stepping stone to learn preschool skills.
- Preschool At The Zoo
- Buffalo Zoo Preschool Welcomes Fall
- The “Pet Project” – Channel 7 Feature
- 2019 Fall Newsletter
- The Spider Project
We’re providing more than just play. It’s more of overall developing their developmental domains and strengthening the skills that they already have.
Anna, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hi, Ron, thank you for having me!
We are delighted to have you, Anna. So, on our show today we have Anna Ileto. She is the manager and head teacher of Preschool at the Buffalo Zoo. That’s really, really, really cool! We’re going to learn about what it’s like having a preschool program at the zoo, amongst a lot of other things. Let’s start off, Anna, learning a little bit about you and how you got to be in early-childhood education.
Yes, I’m very excited for you to have me. So, I started my journey working in a private childcare center. I tried applying to become one of the teachers because, at that time, my husband and I were looking for a place to have our own preschoolers start her own experience working with the other kids and adults.
I got the job and started working with the toddlers. And fortunately they accepted my daughter in the preschool program. It was a great experience having a boat in the same building. I thought it was easy working with the kids but later on I found out that the toddlers were biting. So, I took some education classes to learn some tools and strategies at a community college. And the workshops turned into a course and taking up several courses turned into a degree. And I found myself enjoying the process and watching the kids improve on their behavior just by using practices that were appropriate for their age.
I then got the opportunity to work in a lab school for their early-childhood and elementary education department. And I had a very strong and solid professional experience in the lab school environment, working with professors, teacher-candidates and other education specialists.
I was also given a chance to work as an adjunct professor in the department, so I took my graduate degree at Penn State. The families that I’ve met along the way, my colleagues and mentors, they encouraged me to continue on with this path.
And then about six years ago I had an opportunity to go back to my native home in the Philippines and build my own learning center, working with expat children and their families. When it was time to go home, here in the United States, we landed in Buffalo, New York, and saw an opportunity to work in the Buffalo Zoo Education Department as a manager and head teacher of the preschool program. The reggio-inspired philosophy and the other unique characteristics of the program got me really interested to explore another adventure in early-childhood.
Very cool, thank you for sharing that story! And tell us, what is it like having a preschool program in a zoo? How is that different in that environment? It sounds amazing, by the way.
Thank you so much. Our day is busy. We go outside every day, rain or shine. I use the children’s questions as lessons each week. I modify them each day because it’s according to children’s interests or what they wanted to learn more about. I also plan with animal keepers for the animals that [the children] would like to visit. They do animal enrichment with us and do a keeper stop to answer the children’s questions.
We also do a big ongoing project every year. For instance, right now we’re working on a pet project. So, some of their questions are like, “Can polar bears be a pet?” And we were on the news because of that project because we don’t just give an answer to the kids – we let them figure that out on their own, of course with the help of educators like us and the keepers that we have here in the zoo.
So, our day is just jam-packed with so many things and it’s never dull. It’s a three-hour program but we don’t have to motivate the kids to come in [to] school. They are the ones that are excited to come in. And then when it’s time to go home, they don’t want to leave.
So, I’m curious, what are some of the children’s favorite animals at the zoo?
Oh, there’s plenty. We have polar bears; we have a new tiger that just came in; we have lions. Each one has their own favorites. We have otters; there’s a lot of animals that they would usually tell me and they would ask me a lot of questions. So, there’s no problem at all in doing a lesson plan each week because it’s all about their questions and it’s just fulfilling to be able to give them those answers and for them to be excited to come to school and learn.
So, my toddler is absolutely obsessed with animals. So, I think he would be heaven at the Buffalo Zoo, which is a good segue to my next question, which is about recognizing children’s interests and listening to their questions and basing your programing and learning and development on children’s interests. And so can you tell us a little bit about how you approach that at the Buffalo Zoo?
Sure. So, I had learned this practice when I was in the lab school – it’s called Project Approach. So, what we do is we collect what the child knows about a particular topic – for instance, with the pet project they said that they know that they like some treats, that if they have pets they do like treats and the dogs like to dig bones. Anything that they know about a particular topic I write that down. And then also we write down the things that they wanted to know more about.
And then through those questions we come up with lesson plans. And this is where the educators come in place. It is child-centered but it is also the responsibility of the teachers to be able to come up with a lesson which enables for us to give the kids an answer to that question.
So, for instance, if the children are asking a question about whether a polar bear can be a good pet, the investigation to that is to ask Miss Caitlin, [who] is the keeper for the polar bears, to give us some suggestions on how we can answer that question. So, that morning we made a breakfast for the polar bear. And [Miss Caitlin] said to have a dog food combined with chicken noodle soup. So, we made that and froze it and then presented it to the polar bears.
And so it got her to talking about [how] polar bears need a lot of food each day and they need a big space. That’s why if we just want to have a pet, we can just visit the polar bears in the zoo. And it would be a very hard job to do if we had a polar bear as a pet.
So, there’s no question that leads to, “Oh, that’s a silly question,” or, “You shouldn’t be asking this or that.” It’s more of valuing the child of what they really wanted to know. And what better way to present that [than] from their interests, know they’re very motivated to learn? And you don’t have to let them sit down and do boring things. You present it as something that they already [are] interested to know more about, like the projects that we do.
So, there is a systematic way to do it. It takes a lot of documentation as educators. And the parents see [that] documentation. And actually tomorrow we’ll have a culminating event for the pet project. So, we invite visiting experts and parents to come join us [and] celebrate what we learn from the pet project.
That’s very, very cool. I’m sure the children are so excited to be able to create food and actually watch the polar bear get the food that they made! So, this is more of a selfish, personal question, because, like I said, my son, he spends a lot of time talking about animals. I feel like it’s the first thing he talks about in the morning and the last thing he talks about when he goes to bed.
One of his favorite shows is called Wild Kratts and it’s all about animals. And there’s two people on it, Chris and Martin. And [Ron’s son] just got a new educator at his childcare program. And his name’s Marvin but he keeps calling him Martin from Wild Kratts, he’s so obsessed with the show. But here’s my question is: is it possible for a child to be too passionate about something? Like, should we try to diversify his interests? Or should we continue to foster his passion for animals?
No, because children have that natural interest with nature and animals. And that’s why, when I saw that description here in the Buffalo Zoo, what better way to have this primary resources in my hands? I mean, in the lab school, we do have resources. There are secondary sources, which are books, but there is some information that you cannot get by reading books. They really have to look… like, some of the animals here, you get to know the facts particularly from the animal base, from the keepers that take care of them. And then they can compare and contrast.
So, my answer is No, because that is an affinity to nature and animals and that is something natural that the children just love to dig in and explore that topic. I mean, the opportunity is endless. Every day they have stories to tell and what better way to enhance their literacy skills and language skills? And that’s why more and more educators do, that are parents, are more attracted to the program because of the things that we’re providing more than just play. It’s more of overall developing their developmental domains and strengthening the skills that they already have.
Cool. And yeah, it’s so interesting about that natural affinity. I was always so curious about that, “Why are you so passionate about animals?” So, it’s pretty interesting. One thing I’ve heard before, and I’m interested to get your thoughts on it, is a perspective that, with young children, it would be great if we could share more realistic views of what animals look like in real life, versus a cartoon-pink pig, for example, versus a muddy, dirty pig that’s all different kinds of colours with hair on it or whatever else, because that’s what a pig really looks like. Is that a thing? And [what are] the benefits of one versus the other?
Absolutely. So, for instance, aside from having a visit in the zoo, we do visit with the keepers every day. We have a tour. We I work with them so they’re also very knowledgeable with the animals in the zoo. So, we have a regular tour with them. We have an arrangement with the keepers and keepers’ staff. But also we have here what we call “animal ambassadors”. So, they have a collection of animals that we keep here in the Education Department.
And, for instance, when we read a book [called] The Foolish Tortoise by Eric Carle, they know that that is a fantasy. And in literacy we were able to identify fiction and nonfiction. And from that animal ambassador visit they’ve learned that the shell is attached to the turtle’s body – it doesn’t leave. So, it’s very interesting how they can even remember what a carapace is, which is the top of the shell. And when the kid sees that hands-on and it’s right there in front of them…
I can’t even forget that [were] bats that visited our classroom and we were able to see the bats up close and how they can use their feet walking on the floor. When they see those visits, they really remember the concepts such as echolocation and the carapace, the parts of the animal’s body, because they can see it. And that’s the beauty of having this zoo as a classroom here in the Buffalo Zoo.
Yeah, I really like that. That’s quite interesting in that they can learn the difference between fiction and nonfiction. And especially… you’re so lucky to be able to go out and see the real animals in action. Here’s another question out of curiosity for you: So, we took our son to the zoo and he would see pictures of animals on the [vending] machine and a statue and things like that. And he would go bonkers and he’d be so excited. And then you’d be, like, “There’s a real giraffe. Isn’t that so exciting?” And he’d be like, “Oh, cool.” I always wondered, like, “Are you registering this? This is so amazing, this real giraffe!” Maybe he just wasn’t old enough?
I’m just amazed at how children just register things in their brain. And it’s just a testament that you give them those kinds of appropriate practices, such as hands-on, concrete items and something that they’re interested about and it is a successful way to learn. You really don’t have to force them. And there are no temper tantrums or anything like that. They’re just always willing and able. And they go above and beyond when it comes to providing those resources and materials for them to learn.
Yeah, and we certainly spend a lot of time reading about animals. Cool, this has been really informative, especially for me. Like I said, I’m getting a lot out of this, personally. I’m going to have to come visit you at the Buffalo Zoo now because we’re not too far from Toronto!
Please do.! You’re always welcome to come in, just give me a heads up. And also, one of the things that – now that you’ve reminded me of those kinds of pictures that they see – we also do a lot of social stories, Ron, in our curriculum. And when you read books to kids, especially when they’re struggling with something… like, for instance, biting, and it still is evident, even in the preschool stage, sometimes when they want to manage their emotions.
When I see those behaviors and when we encounter some social problems or difficulty in behaviors, I just present in a way where animals are involved and they are really into that. They really absorb that lesson. And again, this is related again to animals and nature. And I just remember that when you told me about that story that you had with your son.
Interesting. Yeah, again, it just goes back to that natural affinity and how you can really leverage that in your development experiences with children, right? So, Anna, this has been very informative for me. If I’m listening to the Podcast and I would like to get in touch with you to learn more or check out the Preschool at the Buffalo Zoo, is there somewhere that I can go to do that?
Yes. So, we have a website [https://buffalozoo.org/single-experience/preschool-at-the-zoo/]
under the Experiences [tab]. We have a lot of education programs such as Cub Club. The preschool program is included there, you just have a click “preschool program” and you’ll see my contact information. And we also have a preschool website where they can see the newsletter every month and also a sample project that I did with the kids.
And in February we have an open house. And I also do private tours. I also do mentoring with some of the zoo when they wanted to put a preschool and just wanted to know what are the things that they needed to be able to have a successful program. So, yeah, definitely email me and I will tell you more about the program because this is such a unique [program]. And at the same time we’re doing developmentally-appropriate practices with young children.
Awesome. And if you had to leave our listeners with a word of advice from your experience in early-childhood education, what might that be?
I just want to say to just keep listening to the kids’ questions and value their interests. Because for me, as an educator, that helps me a lot with the lessons and the things that I have to provide for them. They’re always willing to learn and they are naturally, again, the whole topic is about being interested with the animals and nature, and we use that as a resource for teaching.
And also keep in mind that there is a whole community out there that is always willing to help. You just have to dig [for] those resources. I always believe that in order for us to have healthy children we need to also have a healthy village. And that is for everyone to be mindful of our all the responsibilities in making sure that our children have their best future and best learning experiences.
Great, that’s some wonderful wisdom to leave you all with. Anna, thank you so much for those thoughts and your time and for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today.
Thank you so much, Ron!