Sometimes the best way to learn about animals is to visit with them up close and in person. While it is important to consider ethical issues with zoos and visit those that meet high standards, a visit to the zoo can be an opportunity to bring life to kids' learning. Nothing beats the moment when a kid and an animal are staring into each others eyes with mutual curiosity.
WHEN YOU'RE THERE
Watch for native animals - Many zoos are shifting some of their focus towards rescued animals that are native to the local area. Displays including local wildlife can be especially informative and lead to learning that can be applied again and again as you explore the area. Look for places in the zoo with a local focus and spend a bit of extra time there. You can try and figure out how many of the animals you have seen in the wild and which ones you need to watch out for in the future.
Be aware of babies - The zoo offers a great chance to learn about the life cycle. Keep an eye out for babies and ask zoo staff if there are any expectant moms you may be able to spot. Kids often love learning about the special names for different types of animal babies. If your zoo includes an insect exhibit, you may also get a chance to explore the unique life cycles of butterflies and moths.
Connect to your kids' experience - Many kids have a favourite animal, whether they were fascinated by a nature documentary or just have an beloved stuffed animal. See if you can spot your kids favourite and help them learn as much as they can about it. You can also keep in mind places in the world you have visited or that your kids want to visit. Try to pay attention to animals from the habitats in those areas. If you are planning a trip in the future, visiting animals from that locale can provide a preview of what to look out for on your travels.
Bring a camera - If you have an avid photographer in your group, arm them with a camera. The zoo is an exceptional place to take unique, fun photos. If everyone has a camera you could even plan a photo scavenger hunt or challenge. Your kids can also share their photos and experience with others.
You likely don't have to work very hard to engage kids at the zoo. It may help to let your kids plan the animals that you are going to see if you are not able to take it all in in one visit. Encourage kids to take their time in the moment admiring and thinking about each animal rather than rushing on to see the next one.
LISTEN AND LEARN
Short and Curly Podcast Episode - Should Chimps Have the Same Rights as Kids
Brains On! Podcast Episode - Why Don't Carnivores Need to Eat Their Vegetables
Ted Radio Hour Podcast Episode - Animals and Us
Does it Fart?: The Definitive Guide to Animal Flatulence by Dani Rabbioti and Nick Caruso - This fun book speaks to the kid in all of us. It features cute illustrations and fascinating facts about which animals do and do not fart. You may want to keep it nearby when you visit the zoo to figure out which enclosures to avoid.
Worms for Breakfast: How to Feed a Zoo by Helaine Becker - This book is full of novel information about what it takes to feed animals in a zoo. It features bright pictures and engaging text that will inspire kids to feed their stuffed animals right.
Animal Encyclopedia by National Geographic - This book packs a punch with thousands of animals profiled. It includes crazy cute pictures as well as some in depth scientific information.
Learning at the Zoo: Ideas for Teaching Kids About Science with Animals - This article suggests different topics to explore with kids of varying ages when you visit the zoo.
REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCE
Our kids love playing zoo. Encourage kids to become the zookeepers and use stuffed animals or other toys as the animals in their care. They can think about creating appropriate environments to mimic natural habitats, supplying animals with nourishing food, creating groupings of animals that are healthy and conflict free... Their imaginations are the limit. Kids can also learn from managing the human visitors. They can create maps, calculate and collect entrance fees, conduct tours and teach their visitors all about the animals.
Older kids may want to create a picture book or slide show using pictures of animals they took at the zoo.
Try volunteering at a site that allows you to care for animals who have been rescued or are in need of protection. Or volunteer with an organization that is focused on habitat conservation for an animal you care about. Some of our family members have spent time volunteering at Thailand's Elephant Nature Park and have shared that it was an inspiring, joyful experience.