Best Zoo For Toddlers

Brent Mccoy
• Thursday, 07 January, 2021
• 8 min read

Today, instead of viewing listless creatures in cages, you’ll see wild animals prowling open-air settings that resemble their natural habitats, separated from visitors by moats or other creative barriers. In its kids zoo, children enjoy close encounters with fennec foxes (whose huge ears make them look like cartoon characters) and tree-dwelling kangaroos, native to Papua New Guinea.

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They can also slide through a transparent tube into a river otter exhibit and check out the new Tasmanian Devil Den. Kids can also mimic the way animals move by climbing and digging, measure their height against gorillas and llamas, and pretend to drive a jeep across a savanna.

You'll see five-inch pygmy marmosets that weigh half a pound, and okapis, which sport zebra-striped hindquarters -- all from treetop lookouts in this replica of an African rainforest. In the children's zoo (late spring through October), kids can climb into animal homes, such as turtle shells and prairie dog burrows.

The Treetop Trail, which first debuted in 2011, is made of high steel mesh pathways and serves as a lookout for lemurs and monkeys. More than 100 bird species fly over four distinct open-air habitats in the McNeil Avian Center, and include rare breeds, such as large blue Victoria crowned pigeons, pure white Bali mynas and rainbow-colored Violations Tracks.

Philly's children's zoo and family education center, Kiddie, teaches conservation and allows kids to meet, feed and groom sheep, goats, ducks, butterflies and a baby miniature horse, while learning what it means to be eco-friendly. Kids can groom and feed rare sheep, goats and a miniature horse, and coo at animal babies in the nursery.

Kiddie's summer camp's week-long programs have different spy-like “missions,” where kids gather information, conduct science experiments, and meet challenges to reach eco-friendly goals. The Treehouse, located in a whimsically designed indoor space, beckons children to climb through it, as does a giant honeycomb.

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It's surprising to find the world's largest indoor desert under a 13-story geodesic dome in Omaha, Neb., alive with markets, cobras, peccaries and other heat-lovers in replicas of three deserts in Africa, Australia and the southwest U.S. You'll find a similar replica of the tropical rainforests of South America and Asia's Lied Jungle, where monkeys swing, macaws fly, and pygmy hippos and tapirs roam amid waterfalls and rope bridges. It also features the world's biggest nocturnal animal exhibit, Kingdom's of the Night, inhabited by bats and giant salamanders.

“Stroller safaris” -- guided tours plus animal demonstrations for toddlers -- are part of a rich education program for kids, featuring themed classes, Family Night Hikes, sleepovers, day camps and even a four-year college preparatory program, Zoo Academy. Some of the zoo's 3,500 animals from 500-plus species on 70 acres are featured in Cat Country, where you'll see lions, tigers and cougar roaming rocky outcroppings and grassy savannas.

Despite a small(is) number of animals (a little more than 2,000), the variety ranges from snow leopards, tigers and lions in the Big Cats exhibit, to kangaroos, emus and wombats in Australia House, as well as performing dolphins. Highlights include Lost Forest, where gorillas, tigers, hippos and orangutans roam open meadows amid waterfalls; Elephant Odyssey, for elephants, lions, jaguars and pronghorn antelopes in marshy wetlands; Africa Rocks, showcasing Africa's diverse habitats; and Australian Outback, for koalas (the biggest koala colony outside of Australia), tree-dwelling kangaroos and wallabies.

Weekend talks and animal encounters with, say, Galápagos tortoises or Sichuan taking, are geared toward kids and toddlers. At the 2,200-acre Safari Park, you can watch herds of zebras, rhinos, gazelles and ostriches, see lions and gorillas, pet gentle antelopes and deer, and learn at the Discovery Station.

A choice of safari adventures features behind-the-scenes cart tours, ropes courses and zip lines, and summer camps for kids up to age 17. America's most famous zookeeper, Jack Hanna, is the Director Emeritus at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where more than 10,000 animals represent more than 575 species.

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The family zoo is known for its gorilla breeding program, massive reptile collection and conservation efforts that support more than 70 projects worldwide. Several kid-friendly educational programs, held daily, teach animals' athletic abilities and extraordinary traits and how they adapt to various habitats.

Kids will love the Great Ape House at the National Zoo where orangutans, gorillas, howler monkeys and other primates can be found hanging out. When Parents set out to find the top zoos in the country, we identified 50 where kids can pet and often feed the wildlife.

In Wallabies Station, the zoo's four-and-a-half-acre Australian-themed children's area, kids can brush a goat's fur, and walk down a path as kangaroos and yellow-footed wallabies hop in front of them. In Lowry's expanded Safari Africa exhibit, your family can climb up on a platform to offer one of the giraffes a snack.

Kids squeal in delight when the giraffe sticks out its 18-inch-long tongue to snatch a cracker. Since Lowry Park was the first zoo in the country with an accredited preschool, the staff is especially comfortable fielding questions from families.

And if you need to relax or nurse, there's even a “mother stop,” a shaded area with benches and child-size picnic tables. On weekends in the summer at the Chicago-area park, they can release ladybugs in the nearby children's garden or help harvest some crops.

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“We'll parade across the zoo with kids carrying the corn to the bison exhibit or the herbs to the area where monkeys live,” says Stuart Stahl, Ph.D., Brookfield's director. As your family walks around, chances are you'll stumble across a zoo chat” -- there are about 300 of them a week -- in which keepers answer questions about the different species and animal habitats.

It's practically impossible to do everything in a day, but try not to miss Dolphins in Action and the new Hamill Family Wild Encounters, where kids can touch and groom goats and get up-close to wallabies and parakeets, take a spin on one of the country's largest hand-carved wooden carousels, and see the Mexican gray wolves at Ravenstein Wolf Woods. Then you walk inside a chilly cove and watch three other species (the zoo has 91 penguins in all) as they swim or congregate above the water.

At the Emerson Children’s Zoo, kids can go down a clear tube slide that crosses through the river-otter exhibit, giving them a nose-to-nose view. Follow the sea lions at the underwater window as they show off their athleticism, take the trail through the deer yard and then meet our playful river otters and industrious beavers.

The fun continues at RPG Aquarium where you can touch a stingray and see the sharks in their two-story tank. Take a trip to the Islands and get up close to Philippine crocodiles, Visayans warty pigs, and clouded leopards.

Near the entrance is Indiana Family Farm, where children can peek into the chicken coop and feed the goats. The 20-foot-high tree house in the Indonesian Rain Forest has an entrance that only small kids can fit through.

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Over in the newly renovated Australian Adventure area, children can hop alongside Eastern gray kangaroos in the Kangaroo Yard, splash around in Outback Springs play stream, and even touch a stingray. The African Journey lets explorers ride the Sky Safari, feed the giraffes, and discover a variety of animals on the veldt in the Zebra Research Station.

Healthy children's meals and low-cost wagon and stroller rentals make your outing even easier. Young explorers get their own entrance to Aronofsky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot, stone lily pads to hop on.

Stop what you're doing around 2 p.m., when the flamingos are fed shrimp -- the snack that makes the birds pink. To see as much as possible without wearing the kids out, hop on the Safari aerial tram or half-hour bus tour, and then linger at a few of the unique exhibits, such as the ones with giant pandas and the elephants.

Only three other American zoos (in Atlanta, Memphis, and Washington, D.C.) have black-and-white pandas, and thanks to a platform, your kids can get what's arguably the best look at them in San Diego. In the Harry & Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey exhibit, families can watch six of these African animals get cared for -- from pedicures to weigh-ins.

Out of the 200 animals, about 45 -- including markets and wombats -- have received special training, so staff can take them out to meet the kids. They can sit inside a heron's nest, try to jump as far as a frog does, pop out of a prairie-dog burrow, climb into a turtle shell, or crawl through an otter log.

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Kids can feed meal worms to almost two dozen species of birds -- including doves, cuckoos, and parrots -- at the children's zoo. In the ultra-fun Forest Play Area, kids can look for animal footprints and swing on vines like a monkey.

Kids love the sea lions show and the tank that lets them see polar bears underwater. In a big red barn, kids can see cows being milked and may get a glimpse of eggs that are hatching.

The Great Escape exhibit -- with its fallen trees, waterfalls, and pools -- will make your family feel as if you're in the rain forest. In its award-winning Big Cat Falls exhibit, families can watch a white lion through floor-to-ceiling windows -- then head to their nearby “research station” filled with computer games and fun activities.

Credit: Photo by Ron Magill Image Courtesy of the Miami Metro Zoo The children's zoo is packed with unusual animals like a blue-tongued skin (a type of lizard) and a Kickapoo (a relative of the raccoon) plus usual faves like sheep and pigs.

Kids can explore a realistic cave, pet a goat, and burn off some steam in an animal-themed playground. Kids can ride a miniature train through a wooden tunnel, feed a camel, and pretend to be a baby chick.

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If your curious critter can't get enough of his stuffed furry friends, it might be time for a trip to see some real animals. There’s a reason that “Old MacDonald” is the most beloved song of the toddler years: Little kids love animals.

But your little one’s unlikely to cross paths with too many species besides dogs and cats (and the occasional gerbil) in his everyday life. The youngest toddlers can be stimulated and engaged on a visit to the zoo, even if they just look and listen from afar (or from the comfort of your arms).

Older kids at the zoo can delve more deeply into the fascinating elements of animal life, like what they eat or where they live, as they listen to a (brief) trainer talk or watch (or even participate in) a feeding. Even though the fun and learning quotients are high, it’s still best to keep your zoo trip to about two hours, which is the max that munchkins can manage without getting tired or cranky.

One more word to the wise: If possible, take kids to the zoo when the crowds are smaller (during the week, during the day). Your animal lover will enjoy his zoo visit even more if he knows a bit about what and who he’ll encounter.

And since zoos have both indoor and outdoor areas (not to mention a chilly reptile house and that hot and humid aviary), dress in layers and take along a jacket and sun hat, so you’re both comfortable no matter the micro-climate. Aside from animals, zoos are full of ice-cream carts and cotton-candy stands, which can sabotage your visit with a battle over treats or, if you give in, a sugar-spiked crash and burn.

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Even the hardiest walker can get tuckered out by all the terrain you’ll cover walking around the zoo. ), but these creatures hang in sprawling landscapes, making them tougher for toddlers to spot.

If your sweetie’s heart is set on seeing safari animals, head over during scheduled feeding times or trainer talks to guarantee a good view. Be sure to explain (and enforce) that these creatures eat only special animal food.

These simple questions really engage kids at the zoo and help your child learn while he’s having fun. Kids love to imitate, so a trip to the zoo is the perfect time to practice their mimicry skills.

Health information on this site is based on peer-reviewed medical journals and highly respected health organizations and institutions including COG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), as well as the What to Expect books by Heidi Murk off.

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