With the abundance of technology, it can be hard to get children to spend time outdoors. In addition to letting her son play Minecraft, mother and contributing writer Margot Black schedules time for her son to spend outside, especially in the company of other creatures. By placing her son in nature, and letting him see animals up close, he was better able to learn about his place in the ecosystem.
When I saw my kid building a zoo on his beloved Minecraft game it tugged at my heartstrings. I realized that I didn’t want him to only get to know virtual animals, but to experience the real thing. So I made it my goal to take him to see as many species, great and small, as I could while we were on our travels—be it a mini-break, day trip, or once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
It’s amazing how many majestic creatures, cute critters, and beautiful beasts you can find if you do a little research. Yes, there are some obvious destinations such as zoos and sanctuaries, but if you get a little creative, the entire family can have a fun time while your children get an education. Best of all, no iPads needed! Here’s my guide to the 10 extraordinary animals your kids should meet—and where to find them.
Giant Pandas: San Diego, California
I live in Los Angeles, where it’s more or less compulsory to visit San Diego Zoo at least once in your lifetime. We enjoyed a weekend visit, lodging outside of the zoo at the glorious Hotel Del, which offers a comprehensive Delventure kids camp for children aged 4 to 12 (they can enjoy dinosaur digs, paddle boarding, and beach activities). But our visit to the zoo was the highlight. It’s a sprawling 100-acre tropical garden housing 4,000 animals of 800 rare and exotic species. One of the most popular exhibits is the family of Giant Pandas. The zoo has the largest population of Giant Pandas in the U.S. and is one of only four facilities in the nation to house this critically endangered species. It wasn’t just our son who enjoyed watching these magical creatures (during peak hours you have to stand in line to pass through the enclosure), my husband and I were equally enthralled. Our son also loved seeing the camels and was equally transfixed by the freely roaming giraffes. Be sure to check out the children’s petting zoo and the baby animal nursery. There’s face painting so kids can go home looking like their favorite animal.
Monkeys: Ramona, California
Of course, you can see many different species of monkeys at San Diego Zoo, and at other zoos around the country. But when my son went through a phase of wanting to know more about primates, I dug a little deeper. Mostly Monkeys is a non-profit sanctuary located in San Diego and was founded in 1989 by zookeeper Suzy Carey to provide long-term care for a variety of exotic animals. It houses a variety of monkeys including Capuchin monkeys, Macaques, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and owl monkeys. Its goal is to provide the highest quality of life for the animals, and they don’t seem to be able to say no to any species: visitors can also meet raccoons, parrots, a mountain lion, a badger, a Fennec fox, gray fox, and opossum. You must pre-arrange a tour via the website, but they’re reasonably priced at just $20 for adults and $10 for children. You can also donate to the sanctuary in person and via their website.
Dolphins: Theater of the Sea, Florida Keys
The Theater of the Sea, located in Windley Key, is the cute baby sister of every theme park in Florida. It’s small and personable, and because it’s family run, and it has a ton of heart. It’s also home to many breathtaking sweet and beautiful Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, as well as California sea lions, sea turtles, tropical and game fish, sharks, stingrays, crocodiles, alligators, and hundreds of species of birds. Twelve million gallons of ocean water are pumped into the park every day, supplying water to the three-acre natural saltwater lagoons. While many of the animals are rescues, a good number have been born there. My son had the treat of his life when we booked him a ticket to go swimming with dolphins. He held onto the dolphin’s fin and was literally swooped around the pool (like Harry Potter on his Quidditch broomstick) by a very gentle and loving sea animal. It was wonderful to watch and he still speaks about it to this day. I also got to kiss a dolphin during the show, which was a first for me, and something I will never forget.
Chickens: Farms Stays, United States
I feel like everyone should have an idea where their food comes from, and I wanted my city-born kid to have a real farm experience. I booked us a weekend family stay on the farm (prepared to get down and dirty) and it’s something that months later he still speaks about. You can find a farm stay in your area at FarmStayUS.com. The staff are actual farmers and are wonderfully generous and patient with the children and animals. Over the course of a great weekend, my son fed horses, ducks, pigs, and turkeys. He also milked a goat and watched a sheep get sheared. Best of all, he was sent into the chicken coop to pick out a freshly laid egg. That was a real eye-opener for him.
Giraffes: San Diego Wild Animal Park, California
Located about 35 miles north of the famous San Diego Zoo is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Situated in a broad valley, what makes this park different and spectacular is that many of the animals we love to see at the zoo are put into very large enclosures, living and grazing together. One of the tours it offers is a Caravan Safari Adventure, which takes you in the back of an open-air safari truck to visit some of the animals up close, and gives you a chance to get real close to the giraffes, so you can feel their rough tongues while they eat out of your hands. My son loved getting this close to the animals, and it was a great experience seeing them live together, in a more “natural” environment.
Horses: Clark, Colorado
There’s only one way to interact with horses, and that’s on a dude ranch—at least that’s what my husband tells me. At the Home Ranch in Colorado, everyone can tick something fun off their bucket lists, be it horseback riding, rock climbing, fly fishing, volleyball, and yes, even yoga for those who need to stretch out their bodies after a day of physical activity. With an amazing one million acres of National Forest and wilderness in the backyard, and around 100 horses in the herd, there’s more than enough space and opportunity for everyone to roam, ramble, ride, and play. There’s a fully comprehensive children’s club for children aged six and up, where every kid gets his/her own horse for the duration of his/her stay, meaning they can groom and feed the horse. They also have an army of dedicated kids’ counselors to make sure that everyone gets to enjoy many of the activities, including a junior wranglers program, nature hikes, swimming, campfires, cook-outs, and s’mores.
Piranhas: Amazon, Peru
There’s something so pure about taking your kid fishing. Taking him out fishing for the famous Piranhas of the Amazon brings it to a new level. Our experiences in the Amazon went beyond this amazing fishing experience, sailing along the Amazon, learning about its deep and mysterious animals, people, and cultures. We booked our tour through International Expeditions and sailed on the La Estrella. It was a small boat housing us and one other family. My son would say the highlight of the trip was dropping lines in the water for some piranha fishing! The piranhas got the best of me every time, but my son and husband were a bit more resilient and successful. I can confirm that they have big, fierce teeth, and I can also confirm that it was the first time I didn’t want to dangle my feet over the back of a boat. Not only that, but the incredible chef on board grilled up our catch for dinner that night.
Giant Turtles: Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it’s well worth it to enjoy extraordinary nature and magnificent wildlife. It’s also, hands down, the most breathtaking setting for Thanksgiving my family and I have ever experienced. The Galapagos is located to the west of Ecuador in the Pacific and is home to giant turtles, pilot whales, sea lions, cormorants, iguanas, pelicans, Storm Petrels, and Lava gulls. Charles Darwin studied here in 1856, so you know you’re in the right place for nature! There were so many highlights. We toured the islands for five days on an 83-foot yacht with Ecoventura, a family-owned expedition cruise company, which goes to great lengths to respect the delicate ecosystem. We swam with sea lions and saw pilot whales break the surface of the water in front of our eyes, and on our final day, we visited the Centro de Crianza Jacinto Gordillo, where the National Park has established a breeding program for the giant land tortoises. Here our son was able to meet one of these unique, enormous creatures, and we had a guide who was able to tell us so much about this graceful animal. It was truly a bucket list moment and worth the expense and air miles.
Bats: Gainesville, Florida
Kids love creepy crawly things. Me, not so much. But if you want to show your child something that will make every Halloween thereafter seem tame, visit The Bat House in Gainesville, Florida. It’s located on the University of Florida campus across the street from Lake Alice, and at dusk, up to 400,000 (count them!) Brazilian free-tailed bats who live in the Bat House fly out in an impressive show of numbers. For the very best experience, get there around 15 to 20 minutes before sundown. Slowly, one bat will appear every 20 to 40 seconds or so, sailing over your head as it makes a beeline for the lake to collect insects—apparently they can consume up to 20 million insects per feeding, per night! They are very effective pest control, which is one of the reasons the house, built in 1991, has been allowed to stand. The best time to visit is spring and early summer. Parking is a block away so bring a picnic…then wait, as hundreds of bats fill the sky.
Elephant Seals: Piedras Blancas near San Simeon, California
Seeing marine animals in theme parks and aquariums is a wondrous experience for any child, but nothing can beat seeing the great animals in their own natural habitat. The Northern Elephant Seal is the second largest species of seal and spends much of its life out at sea, but comes into shore two times a year, in the winter for the pupping/mating season. In the late spring/early summer, it will molt and grow new fur. Piedras Blancas is a great place to see the seals when they come ashore, which is about five miles north of Hearst Castle State Memorial Park and 1.5 miles south of Point Piedras Blancas. The best times to see these spectacular animals is in late January, when most births have occurred, around the first of May for the male juvenile/adult male molt, and in late October for the juvenile haul-out.
As an additional eleventh item on the list, every child should make a trip to the local animal shelter to see the life that so many of our dogs and cats live. If you have space and resources, why not give a pet a new home? The best way to have an animal experience is to rescue one.
For more family travel tips and experiences from Margot Black, check out:
- Exploration & Education on the Amazon River in Peru
- 10 Tips for Family Road Trips
- Animals, Airboats & Sundaes: Family-Friendly Adventures in Miami
By Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com