No one can question the position of the zoo in the canon of homeschool field trip destinations. Who can resist the enchantment of watching monkeys swinging from ropes, observing penguins eating fresh fish, and walking through a butterfly pavilion? The zoo is a go-to choice for getting out of the house on a day with pleasant weather when public school is in session.
However, instead of visiting the zoo, you may want to bring the zoo to your homeschool group! Many homeschoolers in my particular group couldn’t visit the zoo because of lengthy illnesses, a long driving distance to the zoo, limited funds, or transportation problems. Our solution was to contact our local zoo about their community outreach program.
Some zoo outreach programs are free of charge while other programs charge a fee. Go beyond what is written on the zoo website about such programs and call to speak to a live person. It was by making numerous phone calls that I discovered an outreach program by the state park which was a partner of the zoo outreach program.
My local state park has a bird of prey program in which trained guides brought live raptors to a pavilion we rented at a local park. Not only did we get to view a bird of prey up close and personal, but we were also able to handle eggs, feathers, and a preserved bird.
In addition, the specialist had a colorful trifold presentation board, hand-out materials, and overflowing amounts of hands-on items for our kids to hold and view.
The hands-on program by the specialist was not only interactive and more fun than we had imagined, but it was extremely informative. Did I mention that the sounds of the bird calls and how the birds outstretched their wings as the guide talked had the rapt attention of every child and adult sitting there? An outreach program is worth paying for and planning for especially when the cost can be divided up among the group.
Hands-on activities to learn about animal characteristics cement what kids are seeing up close.
Make Your Zoo Adventure Up Close and Personal
Depending on which animals come to visit your group, use some of these hands-on ideas.
Compare the differences between the skin of an amphibian and a reptile. Have kids touch "slimy skin" replicated with grapes buried in brown sugar. Which animals have slimy skin?
Add individual sunflower seeds in multiple rows to playdough or clay. Let the kids feel “snake scales.”
Compare the wingspan of birds. Get kids to stand beside each other holding a string to demonstrate the wingspan of different types of birds.
When learning about rainforest animals, one high school teen in our group drew and painted a colorful jaguar on a poster board. The younger kids then played pin the tail on the jaguar.
Blindfold younger kids and have them taste foods associated with different animals (honey with bees and bananas with monkeys, for example).
Animals dig, mine, weave, and spin their homes. Gather sticks, twigs, an assortment of yarn, thread, and cardboard. Have kids design an animal’s home.
Don’t leave out your middle school kids either. Octopi slither along the seabed using a jet propulsion or siphon-like motion. Have middle school kids use plastic bottles to create a siphon.
Art is something a child of any age can appreciate and do. Keep it fun. Study the colors of a chameleon or a bird that lives in a rainforest. Then have your older kids do a contour drawing and paint it. Younger kids can use paper plates and tissue paper to design their colorful birds.
Older kids in our group created a peregrine falcon lapbook.
A few edible treats add to the fun of the day. One creative mom in our group made an edible strawberry shortcake snake. Lady finger cookies coiled in a circle on a flat platter made the body. Delicious whipped cream on top of the cookies held thinly sliced strawberry scales in place. A strawberry formed the snake's head while chocolate chips served as eyes. Of course, the snake had a thin, red licorice tongue.
Exposing our kids to the fantastic world of animals in a setting where they received personalized attention not only sparked their love and appreciation for learning, but it made it a zoo experience that our kids will not ever forget.