11 Surprising Ways to Teach Your Toddler at the Zoo

The zoo provides a wonderful place for toddlers and babies to learn all about animals.  What you may not have noticed though is just how many other skills your little one is working on while they explore this new environment!

Let’s take a look at each of the 5 areas of development to see just what they are learning and how to encourage these skills while it at the zoo!




A great way to get your child to imitate is by using animal sounds.  Imitation is a very important skill for a little one to have as it is the bridge that will lead them to say their first words.  Have your child listen for the sounds the animals make and try to repeat them.  Model this skill by making the sounds with them.

Grow Vocabulary

There are so many new words to model and teach your little one while at the zoo. Animal names are a perfect way to teach your child something that they will be motivated to learn.  You can also introduce your child to action words (verbs) as you watch the animals run, jump, and swing!  Many times we get stuck in the labeling of objects, but children need to be exposed to all types of words.  Use descriptive words (adjectives) while at the zoo to add another type of word to your child’s vocabulary.



Teaching your child about opposites is a must while on your zoo trip because there are so MANY great examples!  The turtles move slow, the cheetah runs fast.  The elephants are big, the birds are small.

Another great thing about teaching opposites is you can grow your child’s vocabulary and start introducing two-word phrases.  Instead of just saying, “bear” see if your child can say “big bear.”  This is a simple way to move from single word phrases to two-word sentences.


So many animals and so little time!  Expose your little one to this pre-academic skill while watching the creatures and  counting them as they go by.  If they have not started counting themselves then just model this skill for your little one.  The zoo provides lots of repeated practice as each exhibit provides new animals to count.

Early Literacy

Take a minute to look at all the opportunities your little one has to discover print at the zoo.  Stop at the podiums and look at the pictures and read the text to your little one.  Books are not the only way to expose and teach your child about print.  Model for them the practical use of reading and show them how to take in print in a variety of ways.

Self Help



The zoo provides lots of opportunities to practice skills needed to be safe.  Teaching your toddler the importance of hand holding is so important when we are out exploring busy places.  Start teaching this skill at home where it is safe.  Practice walking down the hall together holding hands or in the backyard.  Do not wait and expect them to understand it while exploring a busy environment!

Animal Safety

If they have a small petting zoo area this is a great way to practice how to handle and be gentle to animals.  Make sure that you teach this skill at home first by practicing with stuffed animals.  Model this skill for them at home during playtime, and help them generalize this skill at the zoo when appropriate and ONLY if the zoo allows you to pet them!



Can your little one point with one finger?  This is a very important fine motor skill that requires your little one a lot of coordination.  Model this skill for them by pointing out what you see.   You can then encourage them to practice by saying things like, “point to your favorite monkey!”

Imitating Movements

Animals provide toddlers many great opportunities to imitate some fun movements! Have your little one jump like a kangaroo or act the like bear to create a great large motor imitation game.

social Emotional


Saying “Hi”

There are lots of people and animals to say “Hi” and “Bye” to at the zoo.  If your little one has not mastered this skill yet than this is a perfect place for some practice.  Have them wave to the animals and the zoo workers to encourage this social milestone to develop.


As with all fun public places, the chance of experiencing a temper tantrum runs high.  Try to prevent a tantrum by making sure your little one has a full tummy and is well rested before heading out to the zoo.  Make sure to bring snacks and water with or buy them at concession stands when your little one is showing signs of needing a break and refreshments.

Talk to your little one about the zoo so that they know what to expect when you show up.  Make sure to give your child notice before it is time to head home.  Let them know that you will be seeing the monkeys and bears…but then it is time to pack up and get in the car.

Do you love these ideas but are not sure if you will remember them once you are at the zoo?  We have you covered!  Free printable zoo learning checklist is at the bottom!  Print it off and enjoy learning and having fun at the zoo!



About Kayla ONeill

This is me and my beautiful bouncing baby boy! Before my little guy arrived I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education Birth to 21 as well as my Masters in Education. For six years I worked as an Early Interventionist serving children and families from birth to age three before becoming a stay at home mom to be with my son.

6 comments on “11 Surprising Ways to Teach Your Toddler at the Zoo

  1. I love that you include tantrums! It is important as a parent to be prepared (mentally and physically) for the inevitable tantrum. I always assume it will happen and am pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t. Lol.

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