Kids feeding a giraffe at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

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.”

Goats are a safe bet. For younger children or first-timers, a good place to start is the goats. The docile animals like people and enjoy interacting with them. They are even known to be a little mischievous, which kids often find hilarious (keep an eye on your shirt).

Get a membership. Again, there’s no need to see all the animals in one visit. If your child is under the age of 6, he probably won’t have the stamina for a full visit, and it's not worth forcing him to keep going once he's tired. If your local zoo offers a zoo membership, get one and visit the children’s zoo whenever the mood suits you and your little ones.

Valuable Lessons From the Zoo

Animals teach us empathy and compassion. Interacting with animals and just being outside in nature helps children develop empathy. When a child sees a frightened animal, Haynes says, he feels compassion for the animal. “Empathy,” she stresses, “doesn’t come naturally. It’s learned.”

Animals connect us to nature. Haynes worries that kids are losing their connection to animals because they are spending so much of their time indoors and are separated from nature. For parents who worry about letting their children roam free outside, a children’s zoo offers a safe place to explore nature.

Animals inspire us. Staying cooped up inside doesn’t inspire as much imagination in children as hanging out with furry or feathered friends. When school groups visit the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Piropato is always impressed by how creative students become just by being “among the trees and flowers.”

Animals get kids out of their shell. Don’t lose patience if a child seems scared of the furry or feathered creatures. Haynes notes that a little encouragement can go a long way. The illustrate this point, she shares an example from her own life.

When Haynes took her developmentally challenged nephew to a farm, he was riveted by the chickens. These animals are excellent choices for interactions with younger children, but he wouldn’t go near them. Without thinking about it, Haynes, as a seasoned animal professional, automatically started feeding the chickens herself.

Her nephew joined in.

What Haynes didn't realize, was that this was a breakthrough moment for the boy. It turns out that he had always been scared of the chickens, but after that successful visit, interacting with them is now one of his favorite activities. 

And he isn't the only whose world has expanded due to opportunities like these. Children’s zoos create happy memories, build the foundation for a lifelong love of animals, teach children compassion and can even spark an interest in an animal-related field. The next time your child stops to pet the goats, remember: You might be looking at a future veterinarian, zookeeper or even the next Jane Goodall. ­