Learning at the Zoo

Ideas for Teaching Kids about Science with Animals

Three New Penguins Make Their Way To Penguin Island Exhibit At SF Zoo
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A trip to the zoo can be more than just a fun day trip for families; it’s full of learning opportunities as well. Aside from giving your child a chance to see animals she may never encounter on her own, the zoo provides opportunities to learn about different animal species, their habitats and behavior. The learning can begin even before you leave the house. Here are some ideas to get you started.

All About Animals (Ages 2-5)

Your preschooler may only be familiar with house pets and cartoon monsters, so now is the time to introduce her to the new and exotic animals she'll see in the zoo.

A few days before your trip, sit down with your child and start reading about animals from A to Z, using books such as Jerry Pallota’s The Furry Animal Alphabet Book and R. M. Smith’s An A to Z Walk in the Park: Animal Alphabet Book.

Make an alphabetical checklist of all the animals you think you might see at the zoo. On the day of your zoo visit, bring the checklist with you and have a zoo animal scavenger hunt. Once you’ve found and checked off the animals, you can talk to your child about the animals he saw. Did they look the same in real life as they did in the books?

All About Animal Babies (Ages 5-8)

At this age, children are very interested in the concept of family and the roles children and adults play in families. You can build on this interest by extending it to the animal families she will see at the zoo. Kids are also fascinated by what the babies of other species are called. Again, you can begin teaching at home by reading a book such as Barbara Knox’s Animal Babies ABC: An Alphabet Book of Animal Offspring.

When you get to the zoo, look for animals exhibited in groups: primates such as monkeys and baboons or herds of antelope or deer. Observe the ways that animal parents take care of their babies. As you visit each exhibit ask your child if she remembers what the baby animal is called. At the end of the trip you can compare notes.

Ask her what things the animals did to take care of their babies. (You may see animal parents carrying their offspring, feeding them, or watching over them.)

All About Animal Habitats (Ages 9-12)

Older children are ready to understand that different animals need different kinds of environments in which to live. Start the conversation about environments at home, talking about the differences between the way your child’s room is set up now and how it was set up when he was much younger. A conversation about how his needs varied at different ages leads easily into a conversation about how different animals need particular habitats to be comfortable, happy and healthy.

To really get your child thinking about habitats, it may be useful to make a casual comment wondering about how the zoo manages make sure animals from all over the world can be safe, healthy and have what they need to survive.

Once you get to the zoo, your lesson plan is already set up for you, as each animal is maintained in an environment as much like their natural habitat as possible. Lead your child's thinking with questions such as, “I wonder why it’s so humid in the reptile room?” or “Look at all the shaded area the lions have,” and you and your child will be able to discuss why each habitat is set up the way it is and how the animals benefit from it.

With a little preparation, the zoo can be a satisfying outing, with a good walk outdoors, plenty to see, and a little bit of learning along the way.