toddlers at the zoo

Friday I went with my sister and niece to the zoo — it was the first time for my niece. So as we walked around and experienced the amazing that is the Brookfield Zoo, I came up with some ideas for taking young children to the zoo.

  • Keep your expectations low. Don’t plan on conquering the whole zoo in one day. Depending on the weather and the crowd, pick a few animals, a section of the zoo, or decide if you want to just stay outside or do only indoor exhibits.
  • Strollers until age five. If your zoo is a good walking work out like Brookfield, you should always have your child in a stroller, preferably umbrella to keep it convenient. It will keep whining to a minimum and maybe even inspire a nap!
  • Don’t limit animal exposure. You’ll never know what will spark your child’s interest. Maybe the giraffes, the lemurs, or the lions. Allow your child to watch the animals until they’re done. This is also why it’s good to go to the zoo with a minimum plan.
  • Don’t force interaction. At most zoos, there are petting, feeding, and interacting opportunities. Keep your reaction to these things natural, and join in with enthusiasm. If your child does as well, great. If not, leave it alone. Expose them to the opportunity, and then drop it. Pushing a child to pet a goat or play in a sensory table when they don’t want to creates an awkward situation for all.
  • Come in a good mood. Visit the zoo at a time where your child is well rested and fed (or bring snacks). I have gone to the zoo with a cranky toddler, and nothing good comes of it. Don’t assume they will nap in the stroller. The crowds and possible long hike back to the car can be made even worse when you have a screaming, tantrum throwing toddler in your arms.
  • Set rules ahead of time. Lay down the rules before you enter the zoo, especially if you’re going at a busy time. Do they have to stay in the stroller, except at indoor exhibits? Do they hold your hand when walking? Can they explore indoors on their own? Do you have time for the playground, a carousel ride, or a popcorn snack? Toddlers need rules, so be sure to give them.
  • Plan activities for education. Bring animal crackers and pull them out to see what animal you’ll see next. Make a scavenger hunt with pictures from the Internet. If you know what animals you’ll see, learn a few facts before you go.

When I went with my niece, we saw a few animals outside and went to three indoor exhibits, covering a little less than half the zoo. We let her wander when we went inside to the play zoo, but I held her hand at the monkey house because the paths were uneven. She stayed in her umbrella stroller for most of it, and we gave her a snack when we left.

Taking toddlers out of the house can seem like a daunting chore, but when you plan ahead and have the right expectations, it can be an enjoyable experience for everyone.

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