First Trip to the Zoo, Living the Early Childhood Dream!
Updated: 2 days ago
A First Trip to the Zoo is an exciting event for little ones! We may take this for granted as another cool day, but I ask you to look at this opportunity through your child's eyes wearing the glasses on of an Early Childhood Specialist! I'm happy to share some viewpoints/ experience that can make this magical day even more wonderful!
We are fortunate enough to live closely to The Brevard Zoo. As much as I couldn't wait to take my granddaughter there, we walked through the gates with an 18-month-old, which made our day full of considerations. I thought about how differently I approached this day now than I did with my own children almost 30 years ago. And, I love to share!
Congratulations to the Brevard Zoo who has been voted the #3 zoo in North America, and the top zoo in Florida, in the USA Today's 10 Best Reader's Choice awards! While our first day at the Zoo was at this location. much of this info will be useful wherever you are taking your sweetie!
What makes the Zoo so special?
Children learn best through play, and hands on opportunities. Having the social exposure of a public place, but also having it mostly outdoors and free range, is a GREAT recipe for seeing and doing something out of the norm. Your day-to-day life may or may not have opportunities to experience ALL of the senses, but on a trip to the zoo you will use sight, hearing, smelling, touch, and possibly taste. This is the way children learn about the world they live in and a parent who tunes in and emphasizes these. Exposure to a variety of animals, habitats, and the nature that a zoo offers creates an environment for rich vocabulary and understanding in a way that has to be experienced for the little mind to fully grasp these concepts.
The Zoo is a multisensory approach for any age level to experience animals in their habitats and develop a connection to the bigger world around them. Tuning in is a powerful thing!
What to do at the Zoo?
Create a quality time day with your favorite people, making memories that build REAL connections to the world we live in. See the animals. Talk about what makes them unique. Appreciate the diversity of Earth. Notice the trees, birds, and nature surrounding you. Discuss and label all of the things! Ask open ended questions that expand your child's wonder. "What do you think that elephant is thinking right now?", "Do you think those zebras are best friends?" Maybe tie in some fun facts about the animals diet or homes. The good news: Any conversation you have will impact their brains and light up all the receptors! Overall, enjoy the time you spend together. This fun day is a good enough reason to show up and be present.
Early childhood is a magical place. Those 0 – 5 years are building the foundations of ALL the learning and understanding of the world around them. During this time, your brain is working quickly and forms more than 1 million new neural connections every second. After this period, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, so that brain circuits become more efficient. Our job as parents and the first and most important educators of our children is to increase the hard wiring to maintain these currents and build foundational connections.
Hands on Learning is a HUGE factor in our 0 – 3 aged sweeties. Unless they have an object or item they can see or hold relative to the word or label, it is just not important to them. For this reason, the Zoo is a wonderful learning experience. Songs about animals and the sounds they make sound like nonsense words to a child with no connection to those creatures. Seeing them in a book or on a screen can help them to identify and remember those labels, but nothing beats comprehension like seeing it with your own eyes or being able to touch it with your own hands.
In March of 2023, we took our 18-month-old Nasali to the Zoo for the very first time! As a new grandma who spent countless hours in Zoos all over the country with my own children, I can attest to how exciting this excursion is for little ones. As a teacher in Brevard County, I took so many students to this same Zoo on field trips over the years and participated in multiple family days. Now, as an Early Childhood Specialist I appreciate more than ever why this is such a great place and how it sets the stage for a successful quality day.
How to choose a Zoo?
Depending on your address you may have access to multiple Zoo’s or options in the area. You may find yourself visiting family and taking advantage of their local zoo. Any zoo is better than no zoo! However, if you have choices and little feet, children may prefer the smaller zoo to the bigger zoo.
Older children who like to walk and have more tolerance may like a bigger geographical space, but still not be able to enjoy the whole thing. My advice is always: wherever you take them, have a plan, and be flexible. Bring your best attitude to model patience and good behavior. Once your child senses you are stressed, they will empathically stress with you. If the Zoo is large (Miami or San Diego big) pick areas with the animals you most want to see and prioritize the day that way. If you’re saving the pandas for last and your child has a melt down before the grand finale it may leave you feeling bad about the time and money you spent to make this day happen.
Local vs Regional or big Area Zoos
Growing up, our Zoo was the Bronx Zoo. As a 5-year-old, on my first trip I distinctly remember riding the elephant with my 10-month-old brother. I have some pictures of our day, but that’s my sole memory. As a parent I will tell you, a huge zoo like the Bronx Zoo can be a hard one to tackle as a first exposure. To the harder to impress kids and adults, this is an AMAZING full day of animals, walking, and exploring. There are charts to read and tons of information for teenagers to dig in to. More walking and exploring which builds momentum. The younger brain will really want to find joy in the simplest of things and much of the details will be lost on them. You may be trying to show your child an exotic animal right in behind the window and they are caught up in amazement with a chipmunk playing in the nearby mulch! In comparison.
The Brevard Zoo is shaped like a loop, with flower petals of different regions leading back to the main loop. This lay out makes it VERY easy to navigate and see it all or chose where you want to spend your time. When choosing your child’s first time at a zoo here are a few things to keep in mind:
TIPS FOR THE FIRST TRIP
* This should be fun for THEM and view your job on this day to expose them to as much or as little as they can absorb. Watch for the signs they give you and follow their lead.
* Animals are a big excitement for your children. Choose a Zoo where the habitats are not so big that animals may be far away from view.
* Go early! During mornings which are usually cooler the animals tend to be livelier, and you have a better chance at seeing some awesome interactions.
* Consider the nap schedule… If there is a way in your planning to allow for a few great hours of quality Zoo time and then head out for the Zoo to nap that may be perfect. Some children are just as happy to sleep in a stroller, so this one depends on your baby. I am always an advocate for fresh air!
* Bring your own snacks and drinks! I am all about a sippy cup/ water bottle and some healthy snacks. This can hold a child over who is hot/ cold/ cranky/ bored/ or about any other condition.
* Dress for the weather and be prepared. They may love their sandals or crocs but I usually insist sneakers for the Zoo Day. Keep those little toes protected! I also keep a jacket and blanket in my bag regardless of what the forecast predicts. Sunscreen and an umbrella may also be on the list. Maybe a sunhat/ cap is appropriate.
* Bring some toys? Our girl likes to carry her own pocketbook. It’s a small bag with a few toys inside. She typically carries this or her doll. When she gets bored of it I can easily put it in the diaper bag/ backpack. But if we are waiting in line or she gets weary, this is a quick and sure comfort item to keep her happy.
* Check the Zoo maps and schedules… Do they have a feeding today? Is there any really cool activities planned? Each Zoo usually has their own unique animal interactions and feedings.
* Learning Time! Our pre zoo trip includes setting up the day for success. I am singing the songs about the zoo and reading the books days before including in the car all the way there. Check you tube for song ideas if needed. If your child has a favorite animal or something they are most excited to see, that’s a great way to reel them into the excitement.
* Keep a clean set of clothes in the car. During the Zoo time, they may get dusty and dirty. We are not going to stop the fun in the moment. Unless there’s a real spill or something we can’t live with, we are waiting until the day is done to change. Let them live and enjoy the moment.
* Walking/ Rolling in the stroller… this needs to be balanced according to your child’s needs.
* Consider a membership. If you live in range, a Zoo pass is a great idea for the family – these make perfect gifts too for the families in your circle who have small ones! One trip is NEVER enough to see and do it all!
* For nonverbal or limited language, begin with the animal sounds. Songs like Old MacDonald or We're Going to the Zoo will help build connections, then when you see animals, you can model the animal language.
Navigating Brevard Zoo!
While many zoos no longer print maps, I love a good map to download or print.
In Brevard Zoo it's easy to start at the beginning, and work your way through the 4 loops, following the paths to the left. These 4 loops can be a 3-hour block or a whole day depending on your pace. Website for up-to-date info: Brevard Zoo - We Share Our Joy of Nature to Help Wildlife and People Thrive.
First you will enter the Expedition African Trail, which is a down and back pathway. Some may argue this to be a family favorite and the trail that may take the longest to leave! The pythons are on the left, followed by the meerkats, which are a lot of fun to watch. They are playful and typically very active. There are many viewpoints to observe these fun little creatures, and my sweet girl was automatically drawn to them and ran around the glass spying them excitedly.
Farther down the African path you'll pass the big gopher turtle, a Zoo original. As you turn the boardwalk ramp, you'll feel the excitement of all the greatness. Zerba, Rhinos, and giraffes are the main show coming into view! The vast habitat is awesome, but the animals tend to stay close. You can feed the giraffes for a few dollars or stand and watch as others do. They will often come VERY close!
Just over the draw bridge are the lemurs. Fun little guys to watch if you can spot them.
Where the cheetah exhibit used to be is where the lions are being moved to! Can't wait to let them get situated so we can come back and enjoy both cat species!
Lands of Change is the next loop.
On the way into the circle there is the sweetest deer to the right. We always stop and say hello to this friendly little guy. The aviary ahead is a big hit here and bird food is available for purchase to feed the winged birdies who are VERY active!
Don't miss the kangaroo walkway. This section allows free access to the shared space of both kangaroos and emus. You cannot touch them, but they will lay right in the middle of the path and make for some awesome pictures! If you're lucky you may catch them hopping by!
The warty pigs are also in this loop and may be having a lazy day! The love the mud.
You will find the next stop along the main circle to be the concession stand, bathrooms, and train entrance. The train is a 10-minute excursion, leading guests through an expansive habitat home to camels, zebras, African cattle and the critically endangered eastern bongo. It goes behind the African expedition and allows you to see animals not visible from the foot path. Kids love this little extra.
Trains run frequently. Tickets are not timed. There may be up to a 20-minute wait, and you cannot bring open food or drinks on the ride.
Around the next loop is Wild Florida! The entry way in is quite impressive with alligators right under the boardwalk! Of course, they are fenced in, but they sure look scary! Continue down the trail and see eagle, fox, and bobcat. The bear is the big guy in this loop, and you will see them living it up in their home. Right now, where the lion is they are being moved to a new area in Africa. We saw the lions, but they were more interested in eating than the audience!
The Rainforest circle is the last main loop and a fun circle with lots of lively creatures. Beginning with the crocodiles in the opening which are just as intimidating if not more than the alligators! Continuing on to a fun variety of monkeys, panthers and sea otters, this is also where the cheetahs will be landing once their move is completed. In this section, our baby marveled at the sea otters which came right up to her swimming playfully around their tank. Such fun to watch them and walk through this whole aquarium style area like a wetland.
The Carribean Trail is a short path that showcases a blue iguana and a very colorful amazonian bird. Cool spot to regroup.
I did not name EVERY species the zoo has, this is an overview and generalization, the zoo may change things at any time.
Now we get to the kid heaven - Paw's On.
In this section you could easily spend a whole day, or many days! The big swimming zone takes the center stage. Feel free to bring a swimmy diaper and bathing clothes to join in the fun! There is a petting Zoo area where children can go inside of the enclosure and pet the animals. This may be a selection of goats and chickens. A treehouse play gym is off to the side a little but well worth climbing and exploring. This has kept us happy during field trips for a long time, with natural building materials and lots of cool stuff for outdoor play. There's also an indoor play area that has centers for playing like a veterinarian station and an archeological dig site. This Paw's On kid zone even has a few animals on display such as turtles, flying squirrel, and sting ray.
When and if you make it out of the Paw's On area, you are right by the gift shop and exit!
The Children’s Zone/ Petting Zoo Considerations
Each Zoo has a different set up and I encourage parents to look at the map and what they offer in this area prior to just heading there first. While this is an easy route to take at the zoo, it may not be the best use of your time. Once you enter it may not be easy to get your child out of there! And they may use ALL their energy playing on a nature scape (which will be amazing) before ever seeing one animal.
This area may be swamped with children and have less animals to view. However, the interactive spaces may be much more engaging. The Brevard Zoo's Paw’s On in a great example of this. This zone has an entire swimming area, distinctly shaped like a whale. It’s a shallow pool that has some water fountains and fun ways to cool off. THIS IS AN AMAZING SPACE TO PLAY! This entire area, which I will discuss more below is not a place most children can walk by without trying. For that reason, we did not venture over on our first trip. Our Day 1 adventure had a purpose: see the animals and talk about what we saw. That was enough for the first time. On our second trip we will head to this area (along with some of the animals we didn’t get to see on our first trip) but because the zoo itself is home to such unique species, we wanted to create the love of animals, and this was our focus on this day. You know your child best and may have a different focus for your day. No judgement from me! It's all amazing to experience.
Control of the Day
Have a good idea before walking in about what is important.
If staying in the budget is priority, explain to your child that you will not be buying anything inside of the zoo. If being out at a certain time is important, set a timer with a 5-minute warning and let your child know, when we hear this we will have 5 more minutes, and stick to it!
If your little toddler gets used to these things before they have the language to argue it will be much easier for you to manage expectations as they grow and get bigger, and more able to express themselves. Remember: All behavior is communication.
While I love a good plan, I have learned to give up controlling the entire itinerary. It’s a great practice to follow the lead of your child when trying to create a day full of happy memories. However, decide ahead of time your negotiable and nonnegotiable items. I can be flexible about how long we spend at an exhibit, but not about what route we follow… Maybe you explain to your child the order of the animals you’ll see. It’s a great practice to preload the brain for what to expect. Example: We are going to see the giraffes down here. First we will see the mere cats and the gopher turtle. I don’t want to rush past the mere cats personally just because my child is excited about the giraffes. I can be flexible about providing snacks or drinks on hand but I am not leaving an area for lunch if it’s across the park. Now I will stop in my tracks and head to the potty on request!
This is really a plug for know your own limits and what you need to keep yourself in good spirits along with balancing the needs of your child. Hopefully, you create a person you love to be around in ALL your adventures, and there’s a lot of balancing that happens to make this a lifelong relationship. I will say, my grown children who still love to travel with me were taught early on that we don’t stop at every concession stand or toy cart along the way. If it wasn’t in the plan or budget I would tell them in the car what we were or were not buying as not to get suckered in at the corner to prevent a tantrum. Practice this at Walmart or somewhere prior to the big-ticket places as well. You need to be fluent in saying “no” or “not now” or “not yet”, or “first we will and then we can”. Get some of those little power struggles out of the way while they are little and avoid them building into monstrosity power struggles later.
Affordability meter: 7/10
On a scale of 1-10 how affordable is this day? With 1 being utterly unaffordable and 10 being basically free, I rate this adventure a 7.
Considering the value vs the cost of this day, it's a little expensive but also not unreasonable. When paying for multiple children it can add up. When my children were young and we were frequenting zoos all over we joined the WWF every year. This made it a onetime expense and gave us the value to return several times. I feel that the zoo is an excellent place for little ones to have multiple trips and gain the social experience. That being said, it is well worth the price and with planning it can be done.
AZA Reciprocal Admissions Program
One of the benefits of becoming a member of your local AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium is free or discounted admission to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums that participate in the AZA Reciprocal Admissions Program.
Here's the recently updated List of participating zoos and aquariums (PDF) for 2022-2023.
Brevard Zoo participates at 50% :-)