Ever since I can remember I have always loved visiting the zoo. We are quite lucky to live really close to Flamingo Land (which is a theme park and zoo) so I have always loved being taken to see all the wonderful animals and learn about them. There is something so magical about a good zoo (and equally heartbreaking about a bad one), nothing can compare to coming close to those wonderful animals that you would otherwise never come into contact with. This past weekend (the one from hell I *may* have mentioned) we took the boys to London Zoo for the first time and they loved it!
One of the things I really try to emphasise when we go to the zoo is that zoo trips aren’t just a super fun family day out, they can be full of really beneficial educational moments – and in this instance can count towards Reuben’s children’s university that he is doing at school. Take this one for example from one of our many visits to zoo’s over the years: Reuben was looking at some rhinos (his favourite animals at the zoo) and he asked me what the big red circle next to their name of the information placard meant. By this point we’d seen the mark a few times and he’d started telling me when the animal was a red, yellow or green animal, so I thought I would explain to him what it meant. We had a big conversation about animals becoming endangered and eventually extinct – why that happens, what it means and how it can affect our planet. It was great and his Dad was so impressed when he came home and explained it all to him.
During our visit to London Zoo we had much of the same, we even listened to a talk about Amazonian fish and how the myth that fish will only grow as big as the tank you put them in, is in fact, a myth, which helped us explain why we couldn’t have a tank full of goldfish!
Children are like sponges, they suck up information and they love to learn (especially when it’s learning things like road rage from mummy…), so I thought I’d put together a few tips for how to make the most of a zoo trip.
1. Talk about every animal you see.
Don’t just look at the animals, talk about them too. Talk about their behaviour, what they are doing and ask your little ones questions like ‘Do you see the Tiger is eating? What do you like to eat the best?’ We had a fab time watching the tigers eating at the zoo one day, they were right in front of us and they were eating a calf carcass. Some people were ushering their children away because they thought it was ‘gross’ but the truth is, it’s nature. It lead to a fab conversation about the circle of life, and how the tiger eats the cow to survive, the cow eats grass to survive etc. This weekend we got a wonderful view of the Lions, and that meant that we could really talk about why the male was standing up to attention, why there was only one male and about pride dominance etc.
2. Take a few snacks to break up the day.
I always take snacks for the boys, just some rice cakes, belivita biscuits or fruit. Simple snacks that I can break out at a moments notice while they are looking at things. Hungry tummies make it difficult to concentrate on anything so we avoid hungry tummies at all costs! We actually made a couple of pit stops (more for coffee than anything else in fairness…) throughout the afternoon at ZSL, they have a great little café at the children’s area and we took the chance to nab some cakes and crisps.
3. Try to get your children to remember one thing to take home from each trip.
This is a little trick I use for days when the boys are just wanting to run around and aren’t really in the learning or inquisitive mood. Even if they are, this works a treat. We pick one thing that we want to be able to tell Daddy (or another family member if you go as a family, this weekend it was Maw Maw) when we get home. I let the boys choose the animal if they want to, or if I see a fun fact that I think they will like I will tell them that. One week I told the boys about hippos and how it was once believed that they sweat blood, but in fact they don’t their sweat has a reddish tint because of the pigments in their skin. Isn’t that a cool fact? Reuben couldn’t wait to tell Daddy all about hippo sweat and Toby learn to say hippo. It was a win win.
4. For older children, talk to keepers and schedule your trip to hear their talks.
As I was growing up my mum would frequently stop to talk to a keeper and ask them lots of questions. The last time we visited Chester Zoo (which is one of my absolute favourite zoos ever) we stopped off at the Chimpanzee house to listen to part of the keeper talk. There were tonnes of older children who were really engaged in the talk, because all of the chimps had come up to the window to see their keeper, so you got a really good view. For little ones this is a bit pointless, but for older children its a goldmine of information. Edith and I walked about and enjoyed looking at the fish in the aquarium while Daddy and the boys listened to the Amazon fish talk.
5. Take advantage of the maps, they are fun and worthwhile.
This sounds strange, but a map is your friend at the zoo. The boys are obsessed with maps – so much so that we have to get one each! Reuben will point out which animal is which, who he wants to visit first, what we need to see, and what he isn’t so fussed about. Toby likes to shout the names of the animals as we pass, and spends ages looking at the map the day after. Not only are maps useful for telling you where to go (if you get your children to navigate then this is a vital life skill and orientation tool) and planning your day, but they can act as a prompter for your child to remember the things they learnt and saw during the trip. I can pick up a map from a zoo visit and ask Reuben to tell me what he remembers seeing about a certain animal and he will tell me (please note: I make no apology for the fact that your child is more likely to remember that he saw the elephants pooing than he is to comment on how clever they were using their trucks to get leaves.)
So they are my tops tips, and I can’t encourage you enough to make zoos a fundamental part of your family time, and if you homeschool then they are imperative for learning and teaching your kids everything from history to orientation to science.