Animals, kids and books -- it's a classic combination.
That's the idea behind the Baltimore Zoo's "Big Book" program, which sends the Zoomobile van to area schools and preschools, critters in tow, for a visit that's part petting zoo, part story hour.
Developed by Beth Broadhurst, curator for education at the Baltimore Zoo, the Big Book program uses the attraction of live animals to encourage a love of books among 3- to 5-year-olds.
"We wanted to do an outreach program that would promote reading," Broadhurst said. "We developed the Big Book program to combine science and reading."
The program, begun last month, is built around "The Big Book of Animal Tails," written and illustrated by Baltimore Zoo zookeeper Cory Fuhrer. The book features a fictitious tour guide, Safari Sam, on a journey to count all the animals in the world.
At a recent visit to a preschool at St. Andrew's by the Bay Church in Severna Park in Anne Arundel County, Zoomobile instructor Kevin Phillips used the book to hold the attention of 27 excited children.
Gathered in a group on a carpet in a large meeting room, the children were captivated by the colorful pages. Phillips pasted feathers, snakeskin and other objects into the large-format book as he described the animals and their natural habitats.
Then came time for the live portion of the show.
"What kind of animals do you like?" asked Phillips, as 27 voices yelled out everything from zebras and horses to rabbits and turtles.
That's when he introduced his four "friends" from the zoo: a pygmy hedgehog, a screech owl, a horned toad, and a ball python. For health reasons, the children were allowed to touch only the hedgehog.
The children seemed intrigued by the experience -- and at least one was left wishing for a bit more hands-on interaction.
"I wish we could touch the furry and the scaly thing on the book," said 4-year-old Sean Dunn.
Since last month, the Big Book program has visited more than a dozen schools throughout Maryland, including schools in Frederick County, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
Area preschools and elementary schools may request a visit by the Zoomobile by contacting the education office of the Baltimore Zoo at 410-396-6013. The reading program is expected to run as long as demand exists.