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How to Squeeze the Most Learning Out of Your Next Zoo Trip

Written by Chelsea Gonzales.

Just as my family and I like to visit museums and national parks all over the country, we also find ourselves at many of the nation’s zoos from time to time. What we’ve found is that while every zoo has its own unique features, many of them are quite the same. Consequently, simply visiting has started to lose its appeal. Fortunately, however, there are a number of things we can do to keep our zoo trips fresh and interesting.

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If you have an annual pass and are planning to frequent your local zoo often, chances are, you want to make sure that your trips don't become monotonous and that you too can squeeze the most out of them. Here are my favorite tips and tricks for getting lots of educational miles out of each and every visit.

Slow Down

When your kids are excited, they may be tempted to rush from exhibit to exhibit. Instead, make a point of slowing them down. Really stop to observe each animal. Bring along your favorite animal encyclopedia to help you navigate each exhibit. Take the time to read the signage about the various creatures and look up the answers to any questions your kids may have right then and there.

Looking up each animal and taking lots of time to learn as you go may mean that you'll only get through a small portion of the zoo with each trip. That's OK. That's the beauty of having an annual pass. You can slowly savor each enclosure knowing that you'll have a full year to enjoy them all.

Do a Unit Study

Slightly older kids might enjoy doing a unit study on one particular animal, a group of animals in a specific part of the world, or a certain habitat featured in an enclosure. Time things so that your unit study has begun by the time you visit the zoo. Seek out the animals your child is studying and give him an opportunity to observe his studies in action.

Not sure where to begin when planning a unit study? No worries. Be sure to check out this mega list of animal units to help get you started!

Create a Scavenger Hunt

If you’ve been to a particular zoo often enough, you may be able to create a fun scavenger hunt for your kids to keep them engaged. For little ones, the list might simply include pictures of various animals that they're encouraged to find around the park and circle on the page. However, you can make the game a bit more difficult for older students by asking questions about the animals that can only be answered by reading the exhibit signage.

Here are a few ready-made hunts for your next zoo trip:
Zoo Scavenger Hunts (toddler-6th grade)
Zoo Scavenger Hunt
FREE Printable Zoo Scavenger Hunt

Chat with Zookeepers

Most zookeepers are passionate about their jobs. This means they are more than happy to chat about how they care for the animals in their charge. Take advantage of this by stopping to talk with a keeper whenever you see one. You never know what tidbits they may be able to share.

Learn When Feeding Times Are

Many zoos allow visitors to observe animal feedings. That said, not all of them advertise their feeding times. So, be sure to ask for a meal schedule as soon as you arrive. If observers are not welcome during chow time, try finding feeding time videos of your particular zoo on YouTube. Compare and contrast the menus and eating habits of the animals you visited. Discuss how their natural habitats, teeth and mouth formations, and hunting/gathering rituals often determine their diet.

Here's a peek into the kitchen of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and a look at how the dieticians prepare the meals of several of the animals on exhibit.

Here's a Reading Rainbow episode that features the San Diego Zoo kitchen and the meal prep required to feed several of their animals.


Attend Shows and Talks

Most zoos offer zookeeper talks and presentations throughout the day. It can be easy to skip over these free workshops in order to see all the animals before closing time. But, don’t. Zookeeper talks are often the most educational and interesting parts of a zoo visit. Make time to go to them, even if it means missing out on some exhibits in order to do so.

Give the Kids Cameras

Seeing the world from a kid’s point of view is always interesting. Additionally, giving a kid a camera will likely keep them engaged in their surroundings for quite a long time. Best of all, they will take snapshots that you can discuss later, helping them review and remember what they learned during the trip.

A Final Thought

In her book Project-Based Homeschooling, Lori Pickert emphasizes the importance of frequent exposure to the same places. By taking your kids to the same museums, aquariums, and zoos over and over again, you are teaching them to notice, to master ideas, to front-post back-post their education. You are helping the learning to stick.

Habitual zoo trips don’t have to be boring or monotonous. With a little bit of purposefully planning, each visit can be a unique experience and offer many layers of discovery that you and your kids would miss out with one-and-done type field trips.

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