DULUTH — There isn’t a waiting list for the planned preschool at the Lake Superior Zoo just yet, but if there were, it would be full.

“We’ve had social media messages, phone calls, e-mails,” said Haley Hedstrom, the zoo’s marketing and development director. “We actually just had three staff babies born this spring, so they’re like, all right, get us on board when they’re preschool age.”

The program won’t open until next fall and is still hunting for a director, but the early excitement is driven in part by the fact it will be the first nature-based preschool on the west side of town. It could also be caused by the acute shortage of child care in the region.

“In this area, child care is such a hard thing to come by,” Hedstrom said. “We wanted to be able to bridge that gap.”

Across Northeastern Minnesota, more than 4,000 child care slots are needed to keep up with current demand, according to a report from the Northland Foundation last year. Advocates say creative solutions are needed, especially as care is often too expensive even as caregivers are not paid enough to stay in the business.

“Partnerships are popping up that are very viable and recognized as a win-win,” said Lynn Haglin, vice president at the Northland Foundation.

In this case, Duluth gets up to 20 new spots for preschoolers, and the Lake Superior Zoo gets to further its mission.

“It’s pushing empathy for animals and being able to create that connection between humans and wildlife,” Hedstrom said. “And not just the animals, but the conservation part of it.”

When it opens in a remodeled pavilion near the lion exhibit next September, it will be the ninth nature-based program in the area, she said. The Duluth zoo follows a handful of others around the country that have added full-time preschools.

The Dallas Zoo started its Wild Earth Preschool last school year with the aim of improving “the outlook both for the child and for the future of the natural world.” In Omaha, the Little Lions Preschool incorporates ecological learning to “teach our children to care about all living things.”

Hedstrom said the Lake Superior Zoo curriculum will come together with help from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums network once a director has been hired, presumably by the end of the year.

The waiting list, by the way, should be ready next spring.

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