Getting the Most Out of Zoo and Aquarium Visits

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The new school year has started. That makes the very best time to take advantage of local field trip opportunities such as zoo and aquarium trips. Most kids are back in school. That means these places will be much quieter and less crowded. What better way to kick off your school year than with a series of educational field trips?

As a traveling family, we try to take advantage of cool field trip opportunities whenever possible. Usually, these include museums and national parks. However, thanks to my son’s intense interest in animals lately, we’ve been on a zoo and aquarium kick.

Getting the Most Out of Zoo and Aquarium Visits
Written by Chelsea Gonzales of Wonder Wherever We Wander.

Because we’ve spent so much time having awesome animal experiences lately, I’ve analyzed what works (and what doesn’t) for our family for ensuring that these field trips are fun and educational. When I took a step back and examined my findings, I realized they could easily apply to almost any family.

So, I wanted to share with you what I’ve learned about getting the most out of zoo and aquarium visits.

Getting the Most Out of Zoo and Aquarium Visits

1. Take a Camera

I recommend carrying a kid-safe camera on all field trips. Cameras encourage kids to be observant of their surroundings while also giving us adults a peek into their world. This little tip has proven just as handy at zoos and aquariums as it has at museums and parks.

zoo field trip

2. Go on a Scavenger Hunt

Whether you choose to set up a formal scavenger hunt complete with a list of animals to find or make a game of discovering as much information or as many animals as possible, scavenger hunts are perfect for holding the attention of younger kids. If you can snag a map of the attraction beforehand, creating your scavenger hunt will be a bit easier.

3. Ask Questions

Always ask questions. Ask your kids why they think an animal displays a particular characteristic. Ask the staff what a specific creature likes to eat. The more questions you ask, the more engaging your visit will be, and the more engaging the visit, the more fun the whole family will have.

4. Get Hands-On

Many zoos and aquariums allow guests to participate in feedings and touch some animals at certain times throughout the day. Take note of these times, and make a point of participating in these hands-on experiences. They enhance zoo and aquarium visits, making them more memorable and more exciting.

homeschool field trips

5. Pay for Extras

No, I’m not suggesting you go on a shopping spree in the zoo gift shop or pig out at the aquarium cafe. I am suggesting that you invest in additional events though. Most animal encounter attractions feature some extra experiences at an added expense. If these options include getting up close and personal with the animals, they are almost always worth the extra money.

6. Take Notes

While visiting any attraction, I make a point of taking notes on what piques my family’s interest. Sometimes these are merely mental notes, but other times I jot them down, lest I forget what was so fascinating to my son.

I highly suggest doing the same and then using those notes to lead your studies whenever possible. This practice often leads to exciting unit studies that we would never have considered otherwise.

aquarium field trip

7. Do a Recap

After your visit, be sure to do a quick recap. We like to do this when we’ve piled in our truck for the trip home. The recap usually consists of each person stating their favorite experience, as well as one thing they learned. I often add to my notes at this point.

Getting the Most Out of Zoo and Aquarium Visits

Where to Go

Of course, these tips and tricks are pretty useless if you don’t go to a zoo or aquarium. Not sure where to go? These are some of our favorites so far!

Living Desert Zoo in Palm Springs, CA — This awesome zoo focuses on animals that live in the deserts of the world. We saw some unique animals and appreciated the live presentations.

Newport Aquarium in Newport, KY — Easily one of the best aquariums we’ve ever visited, Newport Aquarium includes some amazing experiences. These include petting sharks, walking over a shark tank (on an enclosed bridge), and several super cool tank tunnels.

Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL – The only aquarium we’ve seen so far that has outdone Newport Aquarium was Shedd Aquarium. We’d say this is probably in the running for best aquarium in the world. Fantastic shows, gorgeous architecture, and a vast array of animals make this an excellent place to visit.

Oklahoma City Zoo in Oklahoma City, OK — The Oklahoma City Zoo is surprisingly pretty, with some genuinely well-done habitats and a good variety of animals. The zoo offers a giraffe feeding experience every day, and the whole place feels more laid back than some of the more well-known zoos.

St. Louis Zoo in St. Louis, MO — This zoo is super cool. It features both polar bears and penguins, both of which rare at zoos. It is also surprisingly well-kept, especially considering it’s a free attraction.

Cape May County Park & Zoo in Cape May Courthouse, NJ — This teeny tiny zoo is another that’s free to the public. We adore how quaint it is and appreciate that the animals are almost always visible. Additionally, our son loves the huge playground area that sits right outside the zoo.

Does your family enjoy zoos and aquariums? Share your best tips or favorite spots.

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  1. Just a plug for my home state zoo– the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE, should definitely be added to that list. We might be ;flyover country’, but our zoo completes constantly with the San Diego Zoo for best zoo (and often wins!). I have to admit, last summer when I went to the San Diego Zoo with my family, I was super let down…it was SO exorbitant and it just wasn’t as clean, updated, or as interesting as the one we were used to, but we sure liked the pandas, which Omaha does not have (yet)!

    It has almost everything you listed about the zoos above, combined including:
    *polar bears and penguins
    *a full aquarium exhibit where you walk through a shark tunnel
    *a massive desert dome including an entire level of nocturnal animals (you literally walk around in the dark, above aligators & crocs!)
    *a huge 3-level rainforrest/jungle building that houses rare animals like tapirs

    It also has an IMAX, a beautiful and large new cat area, butterfly & insect pavillion, and more (seriously, so much more!) and it’s walkable. It’s not free, but because it’s in the midwest, it’s CHEAP compared to other states’ zoos.

    If you haven’t been yet, and you’re taking a roadtrip that just happens to be near the area, definitely plan to spend an entire day there. https://www.omahazoo.com/

    Can you tell how much I LOVE this zoo?

  2. I’ve not been to the Shedd’s Aquarium in many years (like since high school), so I can’t comment on it, but sev’l years ago we took our kids to the Atlanta Aquarium and it was the best experience, bar none and I’d do that again if I could (even with the price).

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