How to Expand Your Child’s Animal Knowledge

The first step in appreciating the importance of all animals is to understand each one’s purpose and what makes them unique.

One of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) major efforts is educating all of its visitors about animals. When families visit the Detroit Zoo, they’re met with exciting and unique opportunities to see fascinating creatures firsthand. And by offering programs through its Berman Academy for Humane Education and educational experiences throughout the Zoo, visitors of all ages learn to appreciate and respect the animals among us.

“When we look at these animals as individuals, it can help us to want to make a difference for all of them,” Lisa Forzley, curator of education and humane education for the DZS, says, adding that the Detroit Zoo develops all of its initiatives and programs through a humane education lens.

“We’re very intentional about activities we do here on Zoo grounds,” she explains. Projects and events revolve around a key concept: “When you’re kind to one another, whether another person or a different species, it instills compassion and empathy for those beings.”

Every day, fascinating creatures that do amazing things surround us. In fact, as Forzley explains, “Every time we walk out the front door, we are in an animal’s home.”

Forzley offers parents some advice on how to instill a love for animals in your little one during your next Zoo visit and beyond.

1. Learning at the Zoo

The way Forzley, a former elementary school teacher, teaches Zoo visitors about animals’ importance is by sharing that “We’re animals, too, and we’re all here together.”

Forzley oversees the Zoo’s Berman Academy for Humane Education, which is unique to the Zoo and offers a “multitude” of programs for kids and families.

“To the best of our knowledge, we’re the only Zoo that has humane education woven into everything that we do,” she says.

Families can get involved in the Berman’s educational programs, including summer camps for kids and high-schoolers, Family Fun Fridays, ZooTots for kids 2 and 3 years old – and more.

“But you don’t have to participate in a specific education program,” Forzley says. The entire Zoo is filled with learning opportunities for kids, making it a rich resource for animal education.

A great way to teach kids about animals is by observing the animals in their Zoo habitats, from what they eat to how they interact – and starting conversations.

“Talking about what you’re seeing is key. Even having (conversations) about the natural world with children, exploring questions, comparing animals,” she says. “(Parents) don’t have to know all about them. (They can) be excited about them right alongside their child.”

Feel free to ask volunteers around the Zoo, wearing red shirts, about your questions. The Zoo is full of experts and people who are “super passionate about animals.” Families can even attend the Zoo’s Zookeeper Talks, held twice a day in the warmer months and once per day in the winter (look for a schedule online).

While at the Zoo, think about “moving through the Zoo in a way that’s respectful to animals,” she suggests.

As a parent, simply sharing your enthusiasm on your next visit can go a long way in fostering a commitment to animal welfare. “You can have a really big impact by sharing those things,” Forzley says. “The awe factor is really important to instill, as is fostering reverence for animals.”

2. Get involved at the community animal shelter

Outside of the Zoo, there are other great ways to enjoy the animals around us. One way is to care for animals at the local shelter waiting to find homes. Or, get involved by donating items to an animal shelter. For example, at last year’s Wild Lights winter event at the Zoo, Forzley had kids making fleece blankets to donate to shelter animals.

Another idea is to attend the Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo event, held semi-annually in coordination with the Michigan Humane Society, which brings adoptable animals to the Zoo for visitors to meet and take home.

“Even by making a good pet choice for your family, bringing a companion animal into your family – and ensuring it thrives and is cared for – that’s making a difference for animals.”

3. Learn about animals in your neighborhood

Learning about the animals who live right in our yards is a fun way to boost animal knowledge. Fun fact: those opossums running around the neighborhood are marsupials with pouches – similar to the kangaroos and wallabies you see at the Zoo. And raccoons? They have dexterous paws, featuring five toes similar to our own hands. Another amazing animal tidbit? Forzley says crows can actually use complex tools to catch food.

“All these animals have amazing adaptations. They’re intelligent,” she says, “and learning about them can encourage us to live in harmony with one another.”

Also, learn about animals that would make good pets. Many times, the Zoo gets calls about exotic animals, including reptiles, which don’t always make good house pets. While the Zoo is often approached to help in these cases, it notes: “Although we wish we could provide sanctuary for all animals in need, we are unable to accept them in nearly all cases.”

4. Read books

Another fantastic way to teach kids about animals at home is through reading books. One book Forzley suggests is Hey, Little Ant by Philip M. Hoose, which features an ant who starts talking to the boy ready to squish him. In the end, it’s up to you to decide: should the boy squash the ant?

The book is great for “helping to have those conversations to develop those critical thinking skills,” Forzley says.

5. Plant a pollinator garden

Plant a pollinator garden. For example, planting milkweed in your backyard will help to attract monarch butterflies. “By planting that we’re helping animals.” Grow other plants in your garden and see which creatures they draw.

Got a garden pest? “Even thinking about humane deterrence when we’re gardening is good,” she says. Don’t put out poison! Instead, research natural ways to keep them away, like sprinkling red pepper flakes on the plants to stop creatures from nibbling.

Don’t have space for a garden? Try hanging a bird feeder and watch the types of birds that come to dine.

The Detroit Zoo is home to many creatures, but it is dedicated to educating one special species: humans! Whether school children or parents, the Zoo provides a wondrous space to learn about beauty and importance of the world’s creatures. Visit the Zoo with your kids to learn about animals and keep up with the Zoo’s Berman Academy for Humane Education on the Detroit Zoo Blog.


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