Help Your Child Make the Most Out of a Visit to a Children’s Zoo

Courtesy of Fort Wayne Children's Zoo
A hungry giraffe at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo sticks out his 18-inch-long tongue to grab food from some kids.

The flowers are blooming, the sun is shining and baby animals are being born, making spring the perfect time to take your family to a children’s zoo. Unlike at regular zoos, many of the animals in children’s zoos aren’t behind glass cages, which means that you and your kids will have the opportunity, with the help of trained facilitators, to get up close and personal with sheep, goats, chickens — and maybe even giraffes — in a safe, supervised environment.

Interacting with wildlife isn’t just fun and exciting for kids (and adults) — it also teaches children valuable lifelong lessons that can’t be learned by watching The Backyardigans on TV or playing Farmville on a computer. To find out why visiting with animals is such an important experience for children of all ages, we spoke with two experts: Marina Haynes, Children’s Zoo curator for the Philadelphia Zoo, and Cheryl Piropato, education and communications director for the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Fort Wayne, Ind. They offered advice on zoo etiquette, how to make the most out of a zoo visit and how to nurture a love for animals that will last a lifetime.

Rules of Etiquette for Interacting With Animals

You want your trip to the children’s zoo to be positive and filled with happy memories. To avoid boo-boos and meltdowns, follow these simple rules of etiquette.

Let the animal come to you. Haynes warns that going to the animal instead of letting it come to you is the biggest and most common mistake zoo-goers make. “If he’s walking away, he doesn’t want to interact. Pick a different animal.” Keep a close eye on smaller children, who are more likely to chase a fleeing animal.

Pet with two fingers. If your child wants to pet the pigs or goats or any animal held by a zoo facilitator, he should use what Piropato calls “scientist fingers” to touch the furry friend, rather than petting with his whole hand. Using the index and middle finger together to pet alleviates the temptation to poke or jab the creature.

Feed with a flat palm. Another common mistake zoo visitors make is not knowing how to position their hands when feeding an animal. If you hold the food in between your fingers, you’ll likely get nipped. Instead, offer food on a flat palm. And, Haynes warns, only present the palm of your hand to an animal if there’s food in it. Zoo animals are conditioned to expect food to be on your palm and won’t like it if there isn’t any.

Respect all the animals. Parents and kids usually adore the goats, sheep and horses but tend to forget that wild pigeons and squirrels are interesting animals, too — and deserve our respect. The goal of the Philadelphia Children’s Zoo, Haynes says, is to “cultivate a love of animals.” Treating an animal differently just because you don’t happen to like it or because it's not part of the exhibit sends the wrong message to kids.

Make the Most Out of Your Visit

Let kids explore. Instead of insisting on following the map or visiting the animals in a certain order, let your child steer the visit (with supervision from you, of course). Both of our children’s zoo experts spent most of their childhood playing outside in nature without boundaries and say this open-ended exploration is what sparked their interest in nature. The Philadelphia Zoo is even trying to emulate this kind of experience in the new children’s zoo it is planning to build.

Don’t rush. The sheep. The chickens. The horses. The turtles. The giraffes. You don’t have to see everything in one visit. In fact, if your child seems entranced by an animal you don’t think is all that interesting — an insect in a tank, for example — let him be. “Kids zero in on surprising things that are easy to overlook,” Piropato says. “Let that happen; they might develop a fascination.”

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