The kindergarteners sat on the carpet as their teacher classified different organisms as producers, consumers or decomposers, using stuffed animals and pictures as examples.
Then she took them just outside their classroom door, to the zoo.
They observed a giraffe-and-zebralike okapi (a consumer) eating leaves (a producer) behind a wooden fence (a decomposer).
The six kindergarteners attend school at Lowry Park Zoo, the only zoo in the nation to run an accredited school, officials said. The school is in its sixth year, and parents pay $499 a month in tuition.
At Zoo School, students are taught the same lessons as their counterparts in traditional schools, except their studies come alive in outdoor "classrooms." They take daily strolls along the zoo grounds, where they learn math by visiting concession stands and do graphing based on their favorite animals — all lessons designed to meet state curriculum objectives.
"It really is nature's classroom," said Kellie Hales, the zoo's preschool and kindergarten coordinator. "It's like a field trip every day."
Right now, the class meets on secured property next to the zoo and is led by Aimee Bozylinsky, who is in her second year teaching zoo school. Previously, she taught at Cahoon Elementary, an animal sciences magnet school, which brings in animals from the zoo and Busch Gardens. She came to the zoo when she saw how much the children at Cahoon learned in just five minutes with an animal.
Imagine how much knowledge the children soak up here, she said.
The kindergarten class averages 10 students. The economy may be a factor in the lower-than-average number this year, zoo officials said, but Bozylinsky sees this year's class of just six students as a good thing.
"The class size is brilliant and there's more freedom to teach what they're interested in," she said. "It's better than a book."
They walk around the zoo on number hunts. They search for opposites and learn about money and goods and services at merchandise stands.
In addition to the zoo, the children have a garden where they grow plants and flowers so they can personally feed animals, such as the hibiscus-loving reptiles. There's a rain barrel and tree stumps that serve as seating for an outdoor reading circle. They recycle, write in their journals, raise tadpoles to become frogs and watch caterpillars morph into butterflies.
"The children have an interest in every living thing," Hales said, "and they're given a foundation to respect the earth."
So what happens after kindergarten?
The zoo would like to extend the program to upper grades, but there's not enough space, Hales said. There is a row of classrooms overlooking playgrounds and gardens, but most of them accommodate the zoo's preschool program.
So it's off to traditional schools where the adjustment becomes a big obstacle for some, one parent said.
Monique Bell's two daughters attended the zoo's preschool and kindergarten. One is in third grade now; the other just started her first year in public school.
The first-grader, Makayla, wants to know why there is so much sitting in a classroom and why she isn't surrounded by animals.
"For them, it's a whole different way of learning," Bell said. "But (Zoo School) has given them such a good foundation that the kids can spend this next part of their lives more involved with wanting to take care of animals and the environment."
Bell said the family just returned from a trip to the Mayan Ruins in Cozumel, where iguanas roam free. She told Makayla to stop chasing the iguanas.
"They don't bite," Makayla told her mom. "Miss Aimee said they might whip you with their tails."
Bozylinsky, also known as Miss Aimee, seizes every opportunity to teach. On a recent day, her students were walking by a pygmy hippo when she stopped to ask: "Are hippos' teeth pointy or flat?"
"Both!" said 5-year-old Fiona Watson-Canning. "The hippos' front teeth are pointy in front to scare predators; the back teeth are flat to eat!"
Students asked to see the giraffes, visit with the blue duiker and talked about the hyena as a consumer.
On the walk back to class through a private path, they saw a grasshopper on the sidewalk.
"Don't hurt it!" they screamed.
Just outside the classroom buildings, Miss Aimee stopped her students again.
"The verb of the day is 'fly,' " she said.
The children stretched out their arms and flapped them like wings.
Then they took off to their classroom. Soaring.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.