Kaylee Garcia had seen furry creatures before. Just not on the playground.
“My mommy takes me to Blackberry Farm,” the 4-year-old said, taking in the collection of docile farm animals that returned the favor when they paid a recent visit to Kaylee’s school, the Ann Reid Early Childhood Center on Naperville’s east side.
An expression of the preschool’s roots in interactive learning, the activity gave the young animal lovers a chance to acquaint themselves up close with critters typically more at home in the barnyard than the school yard: goats, sheep, llamas, hens, ducks, rabbits, ponies, alpacas — and a tiny piglet, donkey and calf that each came as the sole representative of its species.
“Did you know that their eggs are the color of their earlobes?” said teacher Sally Reschke to a rapt group of students as they checked out the hens.
Some adults didn’t even realize hens have earlobes, but the children recently have grown familiar with the range of agrarian beasts. Principal Tarah Allen said the hands-on activity culminated a learning unit on which the school’s 450 young pupils have been focused in recent weeks, finding out about farms and harvests.
The kids appeared to have soaked it up.
“Horses sleep standing up, and cows only have teeth on the bottom,” Anthony Kinney, 4, spontaneously informed a visitor.
Several of the adults kept close to the theme, donning farmer-style straw cowboy hats. Assistant Principal Carrie Smith also dressed for the day, complete with denim overalls, rubber galoshes and pigtails.
“We’ve tried field trips in the community,” Smith said. “We just thought we’d bring the field trip to them this time.”
It was Kim O’Neill, director of Reid’s learning resource center, who came up with the idea for the project. The learning center’s Home and School organization provided funds, and 17 students from Kennedy Junior High School’s Leadership Club came out to help with the temporary zoo.
“We thought we would give the kids an authentic experience,” said O’Neill, also sporting overalls. “We wanted to teach the kids about farmers, and what farmers do.”
Ushering the small visitors among the makeshift pens, O’Neill pointed out to them that, like them, young goats are called kids. And she reminded them of an experience she had related to them earlier, of having been nipped in the britches by an adventuresome goat, back when she was a kid herself.
The ultimate aim is to encourage the young learners to make connections between farm life and the food that turns up on their tables at home — as well as the wool that goes into their knitted caps and sweaters.
“Since we’re doing it as a school, it’s a group effort,” said O’Neill, who was grateful for the chance to teach things like the differences between roosters and hens in real time. “The kids are learning a lot. ... It’s different seeing pictures of animals than the real animals.”
Andreas Georgiades, owner of mobile zoo All the Fun in 1, sees kids connect the dots between the farm and the suburbs nearly every day. It was some of his several dozen animals, all trained to be good with kids, that made the trip to Reid from their home base in Huntley.
Somewhat an accidental practitioner of animal husbandry, Georgiades got into the business after taking in a pony named Flash, back when his kids were in 4-H. It wasn’t long before Flash had lots more company.
“Now I’m a slave to this menagerie,” he said. “Hobby gone wild. That’s a good term.”