- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - While some preschoolers can only imagine storybook animals like Curious George and Lyle the Crocodile coming to life in their classrooms, kids at the San Antonio Zoo’s preschool get to see real monkeys and reptiles every day.

The preschool, which opened in 2004, has plans to expand with the purchase of a more than 27,000-square-foot building.

The San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1PsMmMe ) reports it’s unclear whether the expansion will reinforce the zoo’s case in its decision not to allow visitors to openly carry weapons - guns are prohibited in most educational institutions - and zoo officials didn’t comment on it Thursday. This month, CEO Tim Morrow simply stated that open carry wasn’t appropriate at the zoo.

“We don’t have any issue with the law,” Morrow said Jan. 8. “We don’t think it’s a good fit for us.”

The San Antonio Zoo’s new preschool building, which is scheduled to open in the fall, would allow the accredited program to gradually expand from the 49 students who currently attend either two, three or five days per week to about 200 students in five years.

At full capacity, it will be one of the largest nature-based preschools in the United States and the largest in Texas, said Stacy McReynolds, the zoo’s vice president of education.

Schools that emphasize outdoor learning are popping up all over the United States, from California to New York and Minnesota to Virginia, says the Natural Start Alliance, a group that aims to connect children to nature.

Advocates say spending time outdoors supports children’s development, reduces attention deficit disorder symptoms and increases physical activity, among other benefits.

The new school building, located near the zoo at 103 Tuleta Drive, currently is home to KIPP Esperanza Dual Language Academy, a charter school that is moving to a new campus. The school building previously housed the Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children.

The cost to purchase the building and get it ready for preschoolers will be about $5 million, a sum the zoo hopes donors will help it meet.

To attract a diverse bunch of students, the zoo also is hoping to provide scholarships to help some children attend the school as it expands, also with the help of donors.

On Thursday, a gaggle of preschoolers filed down the zoo’s pathways, each holding part of a long rope to help them stick together. They stopped to look at various animal exhibits.

Most days, the zoo is their classroom, as students in the program generally spend at least half of each day outside - even in the rain, which provides one necessary ingredient for mud pies.

When zoo school students get home, generally, “they’re going to be tired, they’re going to be sweaty, and they’re going to be dirty,” McReynolds said, after a day of fun and learning.

The zoo provides unique opportunities to learn from the plants and animals found outdoors.

On Thursday, for example, preschool teacher Jennifer Stuart helped kids count the scutes - that’s the technical term for the plates on the animals’ backs - on the shell of a mock tortoise shell, while three giant Aldabra tortoises, each decades old and much larger than the preschoolers, sunned themselves in their exhibit nearby.

“They can learn math through anything,” McReynolds said.

The same goes for developing critical thinking skills: Instead of comparing red blocks to yellow and blue blocks, preschoolers at the zoo can compare flamingos to frogs.

The new building, which includes an outdoor area less manicured than the zoo, will provide more settings for students to play outdoors, McReynolds said.

As for the zoo’s decision to ban the open carrying of firearms, there is potential controversy. The state may fine entities that ban guns on property owned by the public.

While the zoo leases land from the city, the San Antonio Zoo is a private nonprofit. District Attorney Nico LaHood said Thursday he believes a private tenant of public land such as the zoo may prohibit open carry.

Complaints have been filed with the Texas attorney general’s office accusing the Houston Zoo, Fort Worth Zoo and Dallas Zoo of illegally banning guns, but there are no complaints against the San Antonio Zoo. The Houston Zoo has argued it may be gun-free because its core purpose is educational.

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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