Zoos are great places for you to encourage your child’s interest in the natural world and to introduce him to exotic animals that he might not otherwise ever see. Here are a few suggestions to help make your visit to a zoo worthwhile:

Discuss expectations with your child. What does he think he’ll find at the zoo? A very young or insecure child may go to the zoo with a more positive attitude if you assure him that it has food stands, water fountains and bathrooms.

Don’t try to see everything in one visit. Zoos are such busy places that they can overwhelm children, particularly preschoolers and kindergarteners.

Try to visit zoos at off hours or times of the year (very early on a Saturday morning, for example, or in winter). Choosing less crowded times to visit will allow your child unobstructed views of the animals, as well as a more leisurely tour of the exhibits.

Look for special programs that are set up just for children, such as petting zoos, exploring local habitats and getting involved with conservation projects. Such programs provide children with hands-on opportunities that are otherwise prohibited by most zoos and allow families to learn about wildlife by getting involved in conservation efforts and exploring local habitats together.

As you tour the zoo, keep your child interested and focused. Try the following activities:

  • Play a guessing game. Guessing games can help your child understand form and function. You might, for example, ask questions such as the following:

    • Why do you think seals have flippers? (Seals use flippers to swim through the water.)
    • Why do you think these gibbons have such long, strong arms? (Their arms help them swing through the trees.)
    • Why does that armadillo have a head that looks like it’s covered with armor? Why is its body covered with those bony plates? (The armor and the bony plates protect it from other animals that want to eat or kill it.)
    • Why is that snake the same brown color as the ground? (As snakes evolved, the brown ones didn’t get eaten as quickly.)

  • Match the animals. Children can learn about organization by seeing related animals. Have them compare the sizes, leg shapes, feet, ears, claws, feathers or scales of various creatures. Ask them, “Does the lion look like a regular cat?” “How are they the same?” “Does the gorilla look like the baboon?” (Caution: Take time to read any signs that provide descriptions and classifications of animals and use this information in your discussions. Dolphins, for example, are not fish; they’re mammals. Asking children to compare a dolphin to a shark might reinforce children’s wrong ideas.)

    As your child gets older, he will understand more complex answers to these questions.

After the visit, have your child do follow-up activities and projects. A child who particularly liked the flamingos and ducks may enjoy building a birdhouse for the back yard. One who liked the mud turtle may enjoy using a margarine tub as a base for making a papier-mâché turtle.

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