How to Make Zoo Trips Educational for Children
The typical trip to the zoo with small children usually plays out like this: kicking, screaming, and excited, the stroller patrol is carted into the wide gates of the local zoo where animal sounds are ringing out from indiscernible locations.
The animal diversity can be overwhelming, and no one can decide what to see first, as they study a map of inconvenient, wielding twists and turns that seem to separate everyone’s favorite animal by a few miles.
The congested crowding makes it difficult or impossible to read the teeny plaques revealing what the monkey with the giant nose is, or the strange little birds that dominate the floors of a mixed exhibit, and everyone is rushed along to make room for another waiting crowd of people whom will suffer the same fate.
Zoological facilities often tout their educational value, but with animals viewed so briefly, and attention only maintained by youngsters when a monkey scratches itself in a ‘private’ area or when an elephant eliminates in the waterfall-esque way that they do, it can be hard to achieve this important benefit that zoos can provide for the young and old.
In fact, there are many special interest groups that undermine zoos with the complaint that they are not educational and teach children to be ‘entertained’ by ‘caged animals’, which in turn is disrespectful to wildlife. These groups would love to see zoos closed down.
I believe that zoos provide people the unmatchable opportunity to see animals that one would have to be a seasoned jungle explorer to view in the wild, and more. Many urban-dwelling children get to set foot in magnificent jungle simulations and see more than just a tail disappear into a bush from afar, and also for a very small fee compared to what it would cost to fly to Borneo, Africa, and other foreign lands.
Seeing animals that are under the care of good zoos in the flesh will paint a permanent, positive impression of these animals in the youngster's mind, and may even inspire animal-related careers for some in the future.
Here are some ways to improve the zoo experience for young ones so that they can make the best use of this incredible resource.
Choose a good zoo
This may seem obvious, but not all zoos are created equal. Some signs of a good zoo are: enrichment programs for the animals, educational signs on the exhibits, and educational programs offered. Enclosures for the animals are tidy and presentable, and while this might not be the best thing for a less experienced person to determine, the cage or enclosure provides enough space and features so that the animal can carry out species-specific behavior. Good zoos are also often actively engaged with conservation causes.
Much of the ‘bigger’ zoos are those that are accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). An accreditation from this organization usually indicates a good zoo, and the logo can be found on the bottom of the zoo’s website. Some other good facilities are accredited by ZAA (Zoological Association of America). Other zoos can be great too, but this can be somewhat tricky to determine for the novice. Many websites such as Yelp.com offer reviews that can be useful.
A Great Choice For All Ages
A week before you go, rent books about animals
Getting ready for a zoo trip - Find out what animals your zoo has on display and learn about them with your child prior to seeing them in reality. Many story books feature animals like giraffes, zebras, and other common species. This can enhance your child’s enthusiasm for seeing the featured animals. There are also great picture and story books that serve as great introductory tools for very small children.
Topics and themes to explore - For older children, good topics to learn and talk about are evolution, ecology, biodiversity and conservation. With conservation, you can discuss the most talked about species, such as tigers and pandas, but it’s beneficial to introduce your child to other animals that don’t get as much attention, such as bongos, gharials, and the California condor. Whatever your zoo has, be sure to emphasize their unique features. Get a globe or a map and place animal figurines or stickers on the places in which they live. There are many activities one can come up with to have an interactive animal lesson with children.
Interactive Activities to Get Young Children Prepared
- Arts and crafts involving animals.
- Story and pictures books with some or all of the animals you'll see
- Talk about the habitats which animals live.
- Introduce new words (biome, folivore, prehensile tail, biodiversity, ect.)
- Talk about the colors you might see at the zoo, and their function for the animals.
- For children 2-5, learn some zoo songs.
Acquire a zoo map and plan your route
For large zoos like the Bronx zoo, this is essential. Not all zoos are small enough to get through them in one day, and this applies double if you are with small children. It may be very beneficial to plan on only seeing a chosen small number of animals so you can have ample time to observe them without the stress of trying to cover everything. Zoo websites also usually have lists of all of their animal species, so you can decide which ones you will ‘landmark’, such as the species involved in your zoo preparation activities.
Map of the Bronx Zoo
Avoid the crowds. Go on a weekday
Best time to go - Many zoos get a lot of attendance that seems to intensify over the weekend and on holidays like Memorial day. It is a good idea to find some time during the week to go to the zoo with your children so you can get maximum enjoyment. If you must go on a weekend, go as early as possible (when the zoo opens). This is also the time when animals tend to be the most active, and during the summer, you can beat the afternoon sun. Going during a nice day on the off-season (late fall and winter) is also a great idea. Not all the exhibits will be open, but this will just make it easier to cover what is.
Lesson: What do animals need to be happy?
This is an important aspect of zoo education that I feel is dramatically overlooked as a source of learning. A good part of what makes zoos educational is the science of animal husbandry, which dramatically enhances our understanding of animals by studying what they need for sufficient well-being. Children can engage in this lesson too.
Many zoos have feeding, training, and enrichment sessions that you should be sure to set your clock for. Enrichment enhances the psychological welfare of animals by providing mental stimulation to an otherwise stimulus-deprived environment. It's what separates a caged animal from a healthy animal, mentally and physically, and our knowledge of this concept is continuously expanding. Also talk about the nutritional needs of the animals, and what features may make each animal specially adapted to each diet. Some zoos and nature centers offer 'keeper for a day' programs for kids with a budding interest in the field.
- New objects to see (toys)
- Interesting food (whole fruit, prey, treats)
- Different scents
- Learning new things (training sessions)
Examples of Zoos with Day Camps/Classes
- Central Park Zoo
- Woodland Park Zoo
- Bronx Zoo
- Oregon Zoo
- National Zoo (Washington D.C.)
- Philadelphia Zoo
For the animals that are moving, children can be taught to observe them from a scientific point of view. How are the animals preoccupying their time, and why? This is a good opportunity to discuss species survival mechanisms and diversity. The gazelle continuously graze, meerkats scamper and constantly check their surroundings, and large carnivores lie and wait. Animals like monkeys tend to always be on the move, and are a good animal for these observations.
It might also be interesting to discuss why animals behave differently in a captive environment. Why do wild deer run from people while the exotic antelope species sit comfortably in their pens in the presence of humans? Animals habituate to what they are constantly exposed to.
Questions to explore
- What unique sensory systems do animals have?
- What do mammals, reptiles, and invertebrates have in common with others in their group?
- How do animals (including humans) affect each other?
- What are the features of animals adapted to hot, cold, and wet climates?
- What are some unique traits of birds from the jungle, vs. birds in our own backyard?
- Compare animal adaptations, introduce animal classification.
A note about stereotypic behavior
Stereotyping is when animals perform behaviors that are ritualistic, invariant in form and have no apparent goal. Such common examples are when tigers pace in their enclosures. Many animal rights activists and members of the public believe this indicates that an animal is suffering from captivity. This is not always the case. The reasons why animals may do this are numerous. One common scenario is that many carnivores will pace about 30 minutes to an hour before they are fed. Also, sometimes zoos rescue animals from other locations where they were insufficiently housed, but the animal, despite better care, continues the behavior. It should be noted that stereotypic behavior is not always indicative of a bad zoo.
Before and after ideas
- Take a nature walk at home, point out animals and how to view them silently
- Find a zoo with a summer camp or day activity
- Watch nature documentaries for kids, or favorite programs featuring zoos and animals
- Animal ambassador programs are great. Many nature centers and some zoos offer children the opportunity to touch exotic animals.
Treat Zoo Animals with Respect
Last, but certainly not least, is the incredibly essential lesson to be taught about how you, as a guest to the animal’s home, should not disturb sleeping or unresponsive animals. All too often, children forget that while this experience is new to them, and that they would like to see animals do interesting things, all of these things are on every zoo visitor’s minds, and animals are repeatedly subjected to people trying to grab their attention or ‘make them move’ constantly.
Children should be taught to come into the zoo as though they are observing animals in the wild. They should be quiet and happy to observe the animal’s behavior, regardless if it is sleeping or doing something inactive.