As a Montessori Homeschooling household, my family decided a zoo membership was a good investment. For our local Detroit zoo, we would only have to go three times to make the membership pay for itself. We go to the zoo at least once a month, however, in the summer time, I try to go once a week. It’s not long day trips when you have toddlers, but short sprints, lasting 2-3 hours tops. Since we go the zoo so often, and because I go at my children’s pace, I have had the time to notice that many parents visit the zoo with their own agenda and time table rather than their child’s agenda or time table. Here are six recommendations to try on your next zoo trip, to see the zoo through your toddler’s eyes.
Leave the stroller at home
I was amazed the last time I went to the zoo how many BIG kids were in strollers. Literally, no one I saw with a five or younger child was out of a stroller. I had Miss Monster (2 years old) and Little Shark (12 months old) and no stroller or carry case. Now, I may be a little crazy because Little Shark isn’t walking by herself yet, but that was the point. I wanted her to build those muscles and walk holding my hand. If I had a carry case or stroller, I thought I might be tempted to give in. But for kids that are capable of walking, they should be walking. It is good exercise, it helps them set the pace (rather than you setting the pace of the stroller), and gives them a better perspective of everything around them.
Don’t plan to see it all; only 2-4 animals exhibits
Since you left the stroller at home, and since you plan to be there only for 2-3 hours, there is no way for you to see the whole zoo. Plan to see 2-4 animals exhibits and you can add from there if need be. Some days, I will ask my children what animals they would like to see at the zoo. They may tell me one or two animals, and then I look on my map what other exhibits are close by that we will probably see. It’s important that your plan be 2-4 animal exhibits that are close to each other. If they are on opposite sides of the zoo, you might as well be trying to see the whole zoo again.
Some days I plan our visits according to what we have been learning about at home. Last fall, Miss Monster was learning animal names at 20 months. She had TOOBS Safari Animals and had cards she was matching them to. I found the printable for this activity from this Montessori blog: In Our Pond. Once she was able to match the animals, I took the cards and the toys to the zoo with us, four at a time, and we visited the animals. It was amazing seeing her connect the dots between the 2D pictures, the toy figurine, to the real animal in front of her. Our zoo has a farm section so we did the same thing when learning about farm animals. Couple weeks ago, at our Library Storytime, the Librarian read a story about polar bears. Miss Monster talked all day about that story, so we rented a couple more books about polar bears and then visited them in the zoo. Having a plan to see animals that you are learning about at home is a great way to reinforce learning and vocabulary.
Have a plan, but follow your child & his/her pace
While I always have a plan when I set out in the car to the zoo, I never feel the need to stick to it. Maybe when we arrive, Miss Monster sees a picture of a giraffe on the garage can and wants to see those instead of the penguins. Since we are walking, I always follow my child’s pace and interest. This is not to say that I don’t lead, because I am the one who knows where the farm animals are, but while we are going there, if Miss Monster wants to watch the llamas for a bit first, then we stop.
The last time I was at the zoo, I was surprised at how quickly parents may rush a child through an exhibit. We were seeing the polar bears and the female bear was pacing back and forth, in and out of view from our viewing platform. Miss Monster was happily playing with a stick and would excitedly look up and wave to the polar bear every time she came back into view and would continue playing with the stick once she exited from view. Little Shark was playing with dried grass on the pavement. We stayed there for a forty minutes because Miss Monster never tired of waving hello to the female polar bear when she came back into view. During that half an hour, parents would come with their children, stay two to five minutes, and continue on.
The benefit to staying at a single exhibit for a long period of time is that your child has the opportunity to observe the actions of the animals over time. It’s a rare occasion that you wander up to an exhibit and the lion decides to roar or the male goose decides to showcase its dominance or the llama spits, but you improve your chances of seeing these actions the longer you wait at an exhibit.
Last month we went to the zoo and I had planned to see the kangaroos. The Detroit Zoo has a cool exhibit where you actually get to walk through the kangaroo exhibit and depending on the day, you can get pretty close to them. I thought Miss Monster would love this as we just read a book about kangaroos. The hard part is that the exhibit is at the back of the park, so we have to walk past a lot of possible distractions. But we got there! Or, we got 6 feet away from the entrance of the exhibit, and Miss Monster spotted her favorite animal exhibit: ducks. Miss Monster LOVES ducks, she always has, and here she spotted a duck exhibit. Except it wasn’t really. It was a garden that had a fence around it, but to Miss Monster, it looked like all the other animal exhibits: an animal, with a fence around it. The duck was quacking, which was fascinating to both girls so we stood and watched—I was still hopefully that we’d get to the kangaroos eventually. We watched and watched and watched; for fifteen minutes we watched the duck quack. Then, the most amazing thing happened: the duck flew out of the exhibit! Miss Monster shrieked in a mix of fear and delight, at which point, she wanted to follow the duck and I realized we weren’t seeing the kangaroos today. So we followed the duck, all the way back to the zoo’s pond and it joined the other ducks. Upon leaving, Miss Monster found a zookeeper and reported that the duck had escaped it’s enclosure but was in the pond if they needed it. While it happened six weeks ago, Miss Monster still likes to tell people the story about the duck who escaped its zoo exhibit.
It’s not always about the animals
For toddlers and preschoolers, the zoo has many things to learn about, not just the animals. Let learning take place, in whatever capacity holds your child’s interest at the moment. While on the viewing platform for the gorillas, Miss Monster has collected and organized sticks. Little Shark was interested in picking up tiny rocks. Neither really seemed to have any interest in the large monkey’s that were sitting around very still behind them.
One of my favorite memories at the zoo is when Miss Monster had just learned to walk and we went to the aviary. There are chains that hang down in front of the doors so that the birds cannot fly out when you leave. Miss Monster was thrilled to run back and forth and back and forth between the chains. See the video below.
(Insert video of Miss Monster & chains)
Go in all weather
Since you have a membership, go in all types of weather. Go in the winter time and see the indoor exhibits. We love to see the penguins, butterflies, and aviary during the cold months. On days that it’s a bit cooler and maybe a bit drizzly are great days to see the big African mammals because they LOVE to be active on these days. I went on a dreary day, because I had no plan b for the bad weather. It ended up being one of the best zoo days because all the large animals that are usually laying around sleeping in the hot sun were up and moving and playing. Little Shark, who was 8 months at the time, was able to see the animals and track their movements, when normally I would point to a stationary animal and there would be no sign of recognition of identifying anything in the exhibit. Of course the zoo is a great place to be on sunny, warm days, but don’t count it out on the cold days either.
Talk to the Zookeepers
My last insider tip is to talk to the insiders. Since Miss Monster loves birds, I talked to the zookeepers and found out when the feeding time is in the aviary. We have on several occasions been able to be there when the birds are being feed, which is really cool because all the birds that usually stay high in the canopy, will fly down to eat. There’s lots of movement and sounds and birds, more so than at the other times of the day. One time, the zoo keeper even showed Miss Monster the food and let her throw some out to the birds. The farm zookeeper let us know when the chicken eggs were scheduled to hatch so that we could go see the eggs the week before and the week after, which was almost as cool as being able to see the eggs hatch live. Talk to the zoo keepers and they can tell you some people cool facts and help your kids experience the zoo to its fullest.
Seeing the zoo through your toddlers eyes can be a radically different change of pace; it was for my husband who loves to see everything and read every sign. But I find it to be more relaxing to go at a slower pace and my children are able to absorb more meaningful learning experiences when they set the pace. Try it, and let me know how it goes!