By Alexandra Martinez
Visiting the frozen tundra to see a polar bear, watching a lion prade around its den, and being chased by the occasional peacock makes a day at the zoo a fun adventure. Not to mention the excitement of navigating the parking lot, feeding your hungry cubs, and wrestling your toddler into the stroller for the fifth time. Yet with a little planning and a few helpful tips, parents can not only make the day more enjoyable, but up the educational ante as well (which as a homeschooler I am always looking to do).
1. Pre-print a map. If you're hoping to make your next trip to the zoo more educational, then you will have to drop the idea of seeing it all. Attempting to visit all the exhibits at a zoo is not a good idea, because children will not only feel rushed, but won't have enough time to make meaningful observations. Start by printing a map of the zoo at home and talking with your kids about which two or three exhibits they most hope to visit. Be realistic about your time frame and try to cluster the exhibits in a certain area of the zoo, noting the closest parking lot for a quick and easy entrance and exit.
2. Stop at the library. Whether it's a few days before or even the morning of, your trip to the zoo will be much more enjoyable with a few books on hand. Your children have already decided which animals they would like to visit, so now they can dig deeper in their knowledge with informational books. Children who are already reading can read aloud while you drive, or you can choose to wait and read in front of the animals. Be sure to pick up some sturdy picture board books if you are traveling with a toddler.
3. Bring along a sketchpad. With a few colored pencils and a blank sheet of paper, your child will have a chance to capture their surroundings with words and pictures. Prompt your children to look closely at the landscape surrounding the lion, to notice the pattern of stripes on the zebra, or to recognize the shape of the leaves the koala is eating. Have them draw or write descriptions, noting the most interesting facts and details that they see. To occupy younger children while your older ones are busy working, have them count the spots on the giraffe, search for colors or shapes in a game of I Spy, or give them their own pad and crayons.
4. Slow down. Getting through the zoo is not a sprint, so slow down. Spend ten, twenty, or even thirty minutes at each exhibit. Really allow your child to use their imagination and pretend they are living with the animals. Talk about what it might feel like to live in the jungle, the arctic, or the desert. Engage your little one by having them behave like the animal they are visiting. Can they hop like the kangaroo? Cackle like the hyena?
5. Brain fuel. Hungry kids are not only cranky, but also less likely to sit through a story or spend time quietly drawing. Bring plenty of easy-to-eat snacks, like squeezable yogurt or apple sauce, raisins, and fresh fruit. Use your snack time to talk about what different animals eat, and where that animal is on the food chain.
So, what are you waiting for? With these five easy to implement steps, you are sure to have an unforgettably fun and educational trip.
Photo: TheConsortium/Creative Commons