The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore announced today that they have been named a recipient of a “Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium” grant from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for the Education Outreach programBMore Natural with The Zoo.”

Supported by the Disney Conservation Fund, these competitive grants, selected through a rigorous review by a panel of industry experts, are being presented to accredited zoos and aquariums to encourage family nature play and conservation education.

“AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums play an important role in connecting children and families to nature,” said Amy Rutherford, Director of Professional Development & Public Engagement at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “These grants support programs that engage community partners to reach new audiences, help families develop comfort and confidence spending time in nature, and inspire the next generation of conservationists.”

“The Maryland Zoo is pleased to collaborate with existing and new partners to develop Nature Play activities at a mobile station at farmers’ markets in Baltimore City,” said Don Hutchinson, president and CEO of The Maryland Zoo. “We have worked with the Druid Hill Farmers’ Market for the past four years and have found the market to be an excellent venue for Nature Play activities with families who have come to the market not only to purchase fresh foods, but to connect with farmers in this beautiful park. We are looking forward to expanding our reach to other farmers’ markets and community-based events in Baltimore City.”

AZA offered the Nature Play grant opportunity to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to provide financial, logistical and creative support to increase or enhance family-centered nature experiences in their communities. This program is a partnership with the Children & Nature Network, building on their successful Family Nature Club initiative.

Research has shown that free play immersed in an outdoor setting is fundamental to connecting children with the natural world around them. The value of these experiences is further reinforced when shared as a family unit. The awards of $5,000 or $10,000 were made available to extend existing family-based nature play programming or to create new, innovative, and engaging programs. Preference was given to those organizations that extended programs to settings off zoo and aquarium grounds and who formed partnerships with community organizations to reach new audiences and provide diverse nature experiences. Applicants were also evaluated on how they addressed and reduced common barriers to nature play for children and families; including providing easy and affordable access to nature, building caregivers’ confidence to support children in free play, and demonstrating that “all weather is good weather” for nature play with the right gear.

“The Druid Hill Farmers’ Market offers a number of activities besides the Farmers’ Market such as concerts, children’s story time, yoga classes and plant workshops, so many families are already coming to the Park to take advantage of these opportunities,” said Katie Manion, assistant director of education for the Zoo. “Nature Play leaders will facilitate activities for the children, as well as provide a resource guide with tips and ideas for family nature play activities beyond the market. We are very excited that the Disney Nature Play grant will help us bring these programs to fruition.”

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore was one of 30 grant recipients that were selected to receive a combined total of $230,000 in awards.

The Nature Play Task Force, which served as the review committee for the Nature Play grants, is comprised of AZA staff and education leadership at AZA members and the Children & Nature Network.

AZA is committed to building lifelong conservation values in our nation’s youth. The Nature Play grants are an important part of a world-wide effort to connect families to nature, and AZA is developing additional resources for online and on-the-ground nature play experiences.

For additional information, please visit AZA’s website.