Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Baby's (and Toddlers) Day at the Zoo - Part 2

Last week (after my adult daughter and I had spent a day at the San Diego zoo), we shared some tips to help you plan your own trip to the zoo with your baby or toddler. In this post, we'll share more of our experience and offer some Baby Behavior-related suggestions to help you have more fun and less stress during your day at the zoo.

On the day of your trip...
1. Be ready to play games in the lines. My daughter and I saw many parents waiting with their children in the long lines at the gate. The happiest groups were prepared with plenty of age-appropriate distractions for the kids. Their older kids were playing "eye spy" and the babies and toddlers were playing peek-a-boo or looking nearby for shapes and colors. Games played in lines don't have to be elaborate. Repetitive games that encourage your baby or toddler to use her senses and mind work best.

2. Support safe exploration. Zoos and large parks are wonderful but potentially dangerous places. Many parents worry about their children getting lost in public places. We know that you'll take care to keep your toddler close to you but you'll need to keep a close watch on everything your toddler is doing. Healthy toddlers will actively explore the world around them. That's how they learn. In zoos, there are non-stop opportunities for your child to pick things up off the ground, fall on uneven surfaces, slip on wet pavement, or get knocked over by a crowd straining to see an animal exhibit. We saw a couple of little ones get pressed up against the window by a crowd at the lion enclosure after their parents pushed them forward to get a better look.We don't want you to be paranoid about it, we just you to recognize that someone's eyes are going to need to be on your toddler nearly all of the time. In a big zoo, it is best to bring other adults so you can take turns watching the kids.

3. If you use a backpack, remember that your baby needs "face time." We saw many parents carrying babies and toddlers in backpacks. Obviously, carrying your baby on your back can make your trip much easier, but your baby needs you to be part of her learning. We saw excited happy babies in backpacks pointing around the park while another adult (often mom or grandma) talked to them about what they were seeing. Unfornately, we also saw a few parents carrying their unhappy and frustrated babies without ever talking to the children or looking back at them. It didn't take long for their babies to lose interest and glaze over. Remember, even the most exciting zoo sites won't be fun if you aren't involved in your baby's experience.

4. Watch for your baby's cues. Your baby will let you know when he's had enough of the sounds, sights, and smells at the park. Watch for cues that your baby is getting overwhelmed or tired. Just taking a break in some quiet shady spot or letting your baby nap in your arms can make a huge difference. You can stop the meltdowns before they get started.

5. Tell park staff right away if your baby drops or throws anything into an enclosure. When we were looking at the giant tortoise, an excited preschooler threw a cap from a soda bottle into the enclosure just as his group moved away. He didn't really know what he was doing and his parents (busy with other children) didn't notice what he had done. We stopped a park volunteer and let her know what happened and they took care of it right away. These things can be embarrassing but the park staff understand that young children will be impulsive. Even small pieces of plastic can be dangerous for animals, so let someone know.

6. Some exhibits require children to be quiet, so be realistic and think twice about standing in long lines. The San Diego zoo has a world famous giant panda exhibit that is well worth seeing. The animals are so popular that the wait time in line to see them can be 45 minutes or more. Because Pandas have such sensitive hearing, the staff must ask visitors to be quiet when they are close enough to see the animals. If your child is too young to keep from squealing, screaming, or shouting, you might want pass on exhibits that require quiet visitors. It is not a matter of discipline or parenting; babies and toddlers have very limited ability to control themselves. Just be realistic; you know your child best.

7. Give your child time to get emotionally ready to leave the park. We saw many toddlers who were very upset when they had to leave the park. While it is hard for any child to give up having fun, most do much better when they have some warning. Some children are fine with a moment or two, others need 10 or 20 minutes to get used to ending a fun activity. The difference isn't a matter of discipline, its temperament. You are likely to know how long your baby needs to adjust to change. Don't forget the simple step of letting your child know ahead of time when you are ready to leave the zoo.

8. Get your baby/toddler ready for the gift shop, before you go in. Zoo gift shops are chaotic places. Even if your baby or toddler is able to understand what she can and cannot have, she may be overwhelmed by all the noise and excitement. Let your child know what is ok and not ok before you go inside and be sure to watch for cues. If your child does have a meltdown, having another adult who can stand in line for purchases while you step outside can be a big help.

Zoos are wonderful places to take children no matter what their age. We hope you use your knowledge of your baby's behavior to make the day more enjoyable for both of you.

(Photo Credit: Adrienne Heinig)

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