Activities for a Day at the Zoo

A trip to the zoo can result in a multimedia presentation and a variety of interesting research topics.

By Jacqueline Dwyer

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Activities for a Day at the Zoo

I love going to the zoo. It’s a chance to relax with my children and see incredible, often endangered, animals up close. Many zoos offer educational programs that are tailor-made for groups of homeschooled children. I’ve never taken advantage of such programs, as my children prefer to simply observe the animals while they are there. I then take a multidisciplinary approach to follow-up activities at home. Here are some ways I've made a zoo trip educational.

Planning Your Trip to the Zoo

Before children go to the zoo, it’s a good idea to visit the zoo’s website. Here you’ll find plenty of ready-made materials you can print out or pick up at the entrance. I also encourage my children to watch the pre-recorded and live streaming videos of the animals, which always add to their excitement about the trip. Another idea is to have children draw their own map of the zoo. This allows them to practice their drawing skills. It's also a great method for focusing on map skills, including distance, scale, and developing a legend. Since zoos usually cover many acres, children can highlight the areas they want to see the most. Prioritizing your visit according to the areas highlighted will be helpful in managing the time on your visit. 

What to Bring Along

One of the wonderful things about a zoo is that it unifies people regardless of their gender, age, or race. My children love laughing and chatting with other children, as they enjoy the animals’ antics. I never want to take away the joy that comes from living “in the moment”. Therefore, at the start of the day, I give each child a notebook, which they fill with drawings, random facts, or funny observations they might have. For example, while walking through the African plains, my younger child sketched a picture of animals in and around a watering hole. When he got home he made a diorama of that same scene. My older child, on the other hand, took notes on animal behavior. Once home, he researched the plains’ complex food chains and food webs.

In addition to the notebooks, I let the children borrow my digital camera and take pictures of themselves and the animals throughout the day. Once home, they choose a song with emotive lyrics and a beautiful melody. Then they put the photos and music together in a slideshow, which is a moving and powerful testament to the importance of protecting endangered species. This year our local library used the slideshow as part of a series on conservation.

Animals and Enrichment Activities

As children enjoy each exhibit, be sure to discuss its layout and any potential improvements that could be made. At home, have your students design and build their own exhibits. They could even hold a grand opening ceremony! It's also beneficial to draw their attention to novel objects in exhibits. We saw balls made of old fire hoses and rotating spinners containing treats. Encourage your children to talk to a zookeeper. We found out that the toys and puzzles are part of the animals’ enrichment program. Not only do they stimulate and challenge the animals, they help with the  training of the larger, more dangerous animals. These toys facilitate safe handling and minimize the animals’ stress during vet checks and transportation. My eldest son was fascinated by what he saw. When he got home, he researched other zoos’ enrichment techniques. He ended up writing a paper on operant conditioning. If you want to showcase your students' new-found knowledge, check the links below for inspiration.

Zoo Lesson Plans:

Zoo Habitat Design

Using their prior knowledge of animal adaptations, students design a zoo habitat that addresses an animal's specific needs.

Zoo Looking

Students locate pictures and information about zoo animals. They give a short, oral presentation on their chosen animal.

A Zoo From the Perspective of an Animal

Students use a graphic organizer to compare old and modern zoos. They create a foldable diagram to explain how zoos meet animal needs from the animal's perspective.