There we were, standing in front of the six-inch thick window that separated us from the lion–one of nature’s most feared apex predators. But it wasn’t pacing back and forth scanning for weaknesses in the fence line. Nor was it sharpening its claws for its next meal. No, the King of Beasts was lying in the sun licking itself. Considering that we’d just come from the primate house where all the chimpanzees had been snoozing, this walk on the wild side was turning into a walk on the mild side.
Funny thing about wild animals–sometimes they don’t do what we expect them to do. But that doesn’t mean a trip to the zoo has to be disappointing. With minimal preparation and a little enthusiasm, any of these activities will turn the next zoo field trip into an expedition, with plenty of learning along the way.
Where Did You Come From?
Not all of the animals are from Madagascar. Chances are, your zoo has animals from each of the seven continents, and you can use the animals to teach or review the continents. You might print off a world map and have children write the name of an animal on each continent. Or you could have kids guess which continent the next animal on your tour will be from. Older kids can keep a tally chart and even make a graph of how many animals are from each continent when they return to school or home. This activity gives kids a new way to look at the zoo while strengthening geography skills.
Prepare your young learners for this socialization activity by having them think of questions they would like to ask the zookeepers. Children gain confidence from interacting successfully with adults, and the zoo workers are usually more than happy to take questions from curious kids. You might have each child brainstorm questions before you arrive at the zoo. For learners that need a visual to prompt questions, have them choose an animal they want to know more about, and then they can think up a few questions on the spot. Either way, speaking and listening skills are bolstered, and kids learn some new facts about their favorite animals.
Same and Different
Most kids who look at a Venn diagram just see two circles that got a little too close together. But the concept of similarities and differences can easily be taught while exploring the zoo. With each new creature that is approached, ask your children to name one thing that is the same as the animal you saw last, and one thing that is different. This is pretty easy when you’re in the house of reptiles, but when you move from the camel to the cockerel, kids have to get a bit more creative. As children practice finding things the animals have in common, they are practicing the critical early math skills of sorting and classifying. And when you get home, you can even work up one of those Venn diagrams.
Where do you sleep?
This activity makes use of a good old tally chart and builds science knowledge. Kids bring a small notebook to the zoo and tally the animals by what habitat they live in. You can make it as simple as you need to: forest, ice, desert, grassland, water. Or you can up the complexity by adding in types of forest and other qualifiers. Either way, children have to study the animals and their zoo habitats. Then they have to tally them up, which adds the benefit of reviewing or learning how to count by fives.
What’s on the menu?
Kids love to connect with animals, and one way they connect is by thinking about similarities between themselves and animals. An obvious similarity is food: we all gotta eat! Build on that enthusiasm while teaching or reviewing vocabulary by having children identify each creature as a carnivore or herbivore. Here’s an easy saying you might share to help kids remember who eats whom: Eyes in front, likes to hunt; Eyes on the side, likes to hide. This is a fun way to get kids interacting with the animals and searching for clues in their habitats, even if they catch the creatures during nap time.
Even if your local zoo is not large and you’ve been there many times, these activities add new purpose to a zoo visit. With a little planning, you can visit the zoo on a mission, and the follow-up options are nearly endless.