A Day at the Zoo

Ages 3-5

  Curator Rebekah K.

Curator Rebekah K.

Why I Wrote This Guide

When I was in elementary school, we lived near the city zoo and the beach. We frequently visited both places. We were always excited to see the infant white tiger, the petting zoo, and the elephant. It was also exciting to come home from school and find one of the peacocks from the zoo in our yard. I still enjoy visiting a zoo with animal-friendly habitats and learning more about the behavior of animals.

I recently read “Wild About Books” with my nephews, ages 3 and 5. We had a blast imagining we were the animals and imagining what the animals were thinking. We had so much fun that my 9 year old niece joined in. During reading, my 5 year old nephew taught us all that cheetahs chirp! Find out more about cheetahs and race them with Wild Kratts.

Did you know?

  • There are over 10,000 zoos around the world.

  • Urban zoos, preserves, aviaries, animal parks, petting zoos, and aquariums try to educate us about animals and their habitats.

  • Most zoos have a conservation focus to help protect animals and their environments.

  • The first zoos were in Egypt about 4500 years ago.

  • You can read more about zoos in the National Geographic Encyclopedia.


Find a zoo near you or near your summer vacation location on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums website. Recent news stories have shown the need for etiquette at the zoo. Talk with your child about how to respect the animals and preserve their environment. “What to Expect” helps you prepare for your trip to the zoo by advising a short visit and suggesting that you help your child get the most out of his or her zoo visit by exploring songs and books about the animals you’ll see at the zoo.


Before your zoo trip:

Introduce your child to a fun song or video about visiting the zoo. Some fun choices include “Going to the Zoo” by Raffi, “Everybody’s Coming to the Zoo” by Lunch Money, Zousan by Elizabeth Mitchell, Caillou Goes to the Zoo, and Charlie & Lola: “Please, May I Have Some of Yours.”

  • Before Charlie and his sister Lola get to the zoo, Charlie reminds Lola that she is not very patient and uses everything up rather than saving anything for later. At the zoo, when Lola wants to spend money, Charlie reminds her she needs to save some for the seal she wants at the gift shop. Will Lola ever learn to save something for later?

  • Extend Viewing: Discuss how money will be spent before you go to the zoo. If there is a set budget, explain to your child that he or she can use the money in the spending jar for one treat and one toy at the zoo. If things start feeling tense at the zoo, remind your child that when the money from the spending jar is gone, we cannot buy anything more. Laura Shin shares The 5 Most Important Money Lessons To Teach Your Kids. Her age appropriate lessons for 3-5 year olds focus on waiting and on “Spending”, “Sharing”, and “Saving” jars.


Do you wonder what life is like for the animals in the zoo? Choose one of your family’s favorite zoo animals and imagine what their day is like. Ask your child “What do you think baby elephants do at the zoo?” and “What do they eat?” Watch baby animals enjoy their day in National Geographic’s “Life in the Zoo.”


Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert

With each page turn, a layer is removed to reveal another picture. Each configuration is an animal: a tiger's face (a circle shape) and two ears disappear with a page turn to leave viewers with a square within which is a mouse. The mouse's square frame, removed, reveals a fox. … The brilliant juxtapositions of vibrant primary colors will make children's eyes tingle. (School Library Journal)


Zoo-Looking by Mem Fox

Flora visits the zoo and looks at the animals. With rhythm and rhyme some of the animals look back while other animals carry on, paying little attention to the little girl in the purple hat. (Zoobean)


Before Reading:

Explore shapes or colors with a shape and color bag before reading Color Zoo or Zoo-Looking. Pull out a favorite bag and fill it with the book you choose and shapes or colors in felt, blocks, or make some construction paper shapes. Include items from around that house in a variety of shapes or colors.

Pull out an item and identify the shape or color together. Begin by handing the item to your child and  asking “Can you describe what you see when you look at this?” and “What does this feel like?” After describing an item, if he or she hasn’t mentioned the shape or color, ask “What shape is this?” or “What color is this?” If your young child is still learning shapes or colors help him or her make a connection to what he or she already knows by saying something like, “This is the same color as your apple at lunch, what color was that?” or “This is the same shape as the ice cream cone you had at the birthday party, what shape was that?” When incorrect answers are given your child may need a little more time to remember a shape or color. It’s okay to let it go and practice shapes and colors another day.

Finally, pull out Color Zoo or Zoo-Looking and read together.


Interactive Reading:

Keep your shapes and colors handy to compare to the shapes and colors in the story. Children can transfer learning from the flat page to tangible objects by comparing the pictures on the page with items from your shape & color bag. As you turn to a page, like the mouse page, trace the shapes on the page together with your fingers and ask, “Which item from our bag matches this shape?” When your child has chosen an item, set it on the page next to the mouse and compare the shapes. Explore colors in the same way.


Extend Reading:

If you have time for a little more shape play, pull out clay or paper and make shapes together. Put the shapes together to make animals.

You can start with the animals in Color Zoo and Zoo-Looking or create other animals.

Some animals to try:

  • A cat, using rectangles, circles, and triangles
  • An owl, using circles, triangles, and half circles
  • A turtle, using an oval, triangles, and circles
  • An elephant, using different size circles, a long rectangle, and squares

What other animals can you create together using shapes?

Which animals are your favorite?

You can also use puzzles, either physical puzzles or apps, to help your child practice hand-eye coordination and problem solving. Puzzle Zoo from Google Play, allows you to set the number of pieces in the puzzle so your child can work a puzzle at his or her own level, feel the satisfaction of a job well done, and come back to solve the puzzle again at a more difficult level.


Pssst! Adam Rex

What do bats want with flashlights? What possible use could a javelina have for trash cans? Why would a tortoise ask for a wheelbarrow? These animals have been in the zoo too long; but, they have a plan! Will the turkeys give it away? (Zoobean)


Before Reading:

Look at the cover of Pssst! to start exploring and making predictions about the book. Begin by asking, “What do you see on the cover of Pssst!?” and “When you see the gorilla, sloths, and penguins, what do they tell you Pssst! will be about?” Look at the title and ask your child, “Who is saying ‘pssst’?” and “What do you think they want? If the girl is saying ‘pssst’, what does she want? If the bats are saying ‘pssst’, what do they want?” continuing through all of the animals on the cover. Then connect your predictions to the story by saying something like, “Let’s find out who’s saying ‘pssst’ and see if we were right when we thought the penguins said it because they want the girl to come swimming with them.”


Interactive Reading:

As you turn to a new page, before reading, ask your child, “What does this animal want?” “Is this something we predicted?” “What will the animal do with this?” After reading the page ask your child, “Did the animal want what we predicted it wants?” and “What will the animal do with this?” At the end of the book review your predictions and compare them to what you learned in Pssst! Be sure to ask your child if anything in Pssst! surprised him or her.


Extend the Reading:

Write your own Pssst! circus sequel and strengthen narrative skills along the way.

What you will need:

Art supplies, such as

  • paper
  • crayons, pencils, markers
  • old magazines
  • scissors


What to do:

  1. Return to the last page of Pssst! and imagine what the animals at the circus would ask for and imagine what they would do with the items.
  2. Help your child list the animals he or she could find at a circus
  3. Brainstorm together about what the animals might want to do
  4. Help your child list the things circus animals could use to do what they want
  5. Draw the animals and illustrate the story together using any supplies that inspire you
  6. Help your child write as much dialogue and narration as you both want by asking him or her to imagine what the animals say and do


Where’s Walrus? by Stephen Savage

It's another slow day at the zoo—not. The keeper has nodded off, and all are asleep—all, that is, except Walrus. The seemingly content creature carefully assesses the situation from his small, raised pool. In one quick flip, he’s off scurrying toward…freedom? A flowing fountain ahead, a shocked zookeeper behind, and loads of fun awaits! So begins the visual hijinks. Walrus, always one step ahead of his mustachioed caretaker, manages to build structures, fight fires and dance the cancan, all before winning an attention-grabbing platform-diving competition. (Kirkus)


Interactive Reading

Use Where’s Walrus? to build narrative skills. Begin by describing what you see on the page, what the animals and zookeeper are doing and what the animals are thinking or saying. Then predict what you think might happen next. For example, “It’s a bright, sun-shiny day and there are no visitors at the zoo. The zookeeper and all of the animals are napping. Oh, wait! The walrus isn’t sleeping, he’s awake, waiting for kids to come visit the zoo; but, no one is coming. I think maybe the walrus will get out of his pool and go find an adventure.”

Turn the page and ask your child to describe what he or she sees and predict what will happen next.

Next time you read, try telling the story as the walrus or as the zookeeper.


Extend Reading

Choose a page from Where’s Walrus? and do one of the activities Walrus enjoyed when he left the zoo.

For example, choose the page where Walrus is helping to build a wall and pull out material to build. According to a 2013 University of Delaware study, children learn engineering, math, and spatial thinking skills as they use blocks or bricks to build. Your child will also use many skills such as analysis, problem solving, and evaluation while participating in the following activity.


What you will need:

  • blocks or other building materials like bricks or sponges
  • index cards
  • markers


What to do:

  1. Draw the outline of shapes, sometimes called ghost models, your child can look at to copy such as rectangles, castle walls, bridges, flowers, ramps, towers, dinosaurs, rockets, cars, houses, arches, squares, a U, pagodas, butterflies, pyramids, and anything else that inspires you or your child

  2. Don’t suggest which blocks or bricks to use in building when using a ghost model, in this way your child is problem solving, not just copying a model

  3. Show your child a shape and ask him or her to use the blocks or bricks to build something similar

  4. After building, ask your child to compare his or her item to the outline you provided

  5. Ask, “Does your bridge look like the bridge in the picture?” and “What did you do to make it look like this bridge?”

  6. Ask, “Can we keep this square you made and now build another square using different sizes and shapes of blocks?”

Source: Activity idea based on the work of A. Mirenova


A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead

Amos McGee, a friendly zookeeper, always made time to visit his good friends: the elephant, the tortoise, the penguin, the rhinoceros, and the owl. But one day--Ah-choo!--he woke up with the sniffles and the sneezes. Though he didn't make it into the zoo that day, he did receive some unexpected guests! Philip Stead's gently humorous tale of friendship and dedication is illustrated by his wife Erin Stead'€˜s elegant drawings, embellished with subtle hints of color. (Publisher)


Before Reading

Talk about the job of a zookeeper. Ask your child, “What would you enjoy about being a zookeeper?” “If you were a zookeeper, what would you do each day?” “Which animal would you enjoy working with the most?” “Which animal would you not want to work with?”


Extend Reading

Watch Life as a Zookeeper, an interview with the zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo’s Children’s Zoo. Talk about some of the tasks zookeepers do every day and ask your child “Which task would be your favorite task at the zoo?”

Pair A Sick Day for Amos McGee with a nonfiction book like Feeding Time at the Zoo by Sherry Shahan or Zoo by Gail Gibbons to learn more about the work zookeepers do everyday.

You can be a zookeeper with the app Curious George at the Zoo. Your child can help George take care of the animals and learn about them with memory and sorting games.

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Xander’s Panda Party by Linda Sue Park

Xander is lonely. He wants to throw a panda party; but, he’s the only panda at the zoo. What should he do? Xander decides to invite all of the bears. His small party soon grows and grows, until Xander’s Panda Party includes all of the beasts at the zoo. (Zoobean)


Before Reading

Check out the Panda Cam from San Diego Zoo. Keep a panda log in your nature journal. Record the day (or date and time) and ask your child “What do you see the pandas doing?” and “Can you draw a picture of what the pandas are doing in your nature journal?” Check back again on another day or at another time to learn what pandas do throughout the day.


Interactive Reading

Talk about feelings of loneliness or about friendship as you read. Occasionally, pause in your reading, lay the book flat and ask your child how he or she would feel if he or she were part of the story. For example, “If you were Xander Panda, and couldn’t have a panda party because you were the only panda, how would you feel? How do you think Xander feels?” and “What would you say to Xander on this page?”


Extend Reading

Practice drawing panda’s with this How To from San Diego Zoo.


Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky

Jack Prelutsky and Peter Sis have teamed up again! This time, they're taking us on a tour o Scranimal Island where we'll meet the most fantastic and imaginative scranimals. Each unique creature is a cross between a plant and an animal. Through the poetry and portraits you can meet a bananaconda up close and swim with the Radisharks. Travel along with the narrators, a boy and girl on their scooter, to see animals that have never been displayed in a zoo. (Zoobean)


Extend Reading

Listen to “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and Other Poems” to hear Jack prelutsky read poems from Behold the Bold Umbellaphant and Scranimals.


1, 2, 3 To the Zoo by Eric Carle

Colorful animals, riding on a train to the zoo, introduce numbers, sorting, and counting. Each car on the train has one more zoo animal than the one before, from the car with one elephant to the one with ten birds. (NoveList/Zoobean)


Extend Reading

Continue counting after reading 1,2,3, To the Zoo by counting and sorting animals by the number of legs they have.


What you will need:

  • Paper
  • Markers or crayons


What to do:

  • Create a 3-column chart
  • Label the columns: No Legs, 2 Legs, and 4 Legs
  • Look at each page and count the animals legs
  • Sort the animals into groups of No Legs, 2 Legs, and 4 Legs by drawing each animal or writing the name of the animal in the correct column
  • Use your columns by counting how many animals are in each column and turning them into statements such as, “Only the birds have 2 legs.” or “Giraffes, hippos, and elephants all have four legs.”


The Mixed-Up Chameleon by Eric Carle

One little chameleon wished to be like the big polar bear, the pink flamingo, the fox, the fish, and the elephant at the zoo and his wishes came true. Before he knew it, he was a little like each of the animals he wished to be like; but, then he was not much like himself. Poor, mixed-up chameleon! (Zoobean)


Before Reading

Learn about chameleons before you read The Mixed-Up Chameleon. Ask you child, “What do we know about chameleons?” List the things he or she already knows about this reptile under the heading “We Know”. Then ask, “What do we still need to learn about chameleons?” List the questions your child has about chameleons before suggesting questions to list under the heading “What We Need to Know”. If he or she is not sure what questions to ask, make a few question suggestions such as, “I wonder what chameleons eat. Do you know what chameleons eat?” If he or she knows, add this information to the know list. If he or she doesn’t know what chameleons eat, add the question to the the question list. Try to keep the lists short and easy to remember. Begin with three items for your three year old, four items for your four year old, etc. Next time you explore, try a few different questions or one extra question to remember to find while reading and researching.

Use a website like a-z animals or San Diego Zoo Animals to find out a little more about chameleons and answer some questions.

As you explore and research online, ask your child to look for the information he or she already knew and the answers to the questions on the list.


After Reading

Ask your child, “What did we learn about chameleons today?” Add the information to the list under the heading “What We Learned.”  Then ask, “Did we find the answers to all of our questions?” If so, good job! If not, consider where the answers could be found, in an encyclopedia, in a chameleon book from the library, or at the zoo.

Finally, ask, “Are there any more questions we should add to our list?”


Interactive Reading

Introduce The Mixed-Up Chameleon by reminding your child, or asking your child to remind you, of some of the things you learned about chameleons. End by reminding your child that some chameleons can change color. Then introduce the book by saying something like “Let’s imagine what the chameleon in this book will look like when he begins changing.” While reading The Mixed-Up Chameleon, consider not revealing each page as you read it. Young children can visualize what is being read by waiting to see the visual and this is one of the books that waiting can easily work with.

After reading each page, ask, “How do you suppose the chameleon became like the polar bear, flamingo, etc?” Begin by modeling visualization. Set the book down and say something like, “I imagine that the green chameleon would become white and fuzzy when he wished to become like the polar bear.” Or you could say, “I imagine that the little chameleon grew very large when he wished to become like the polar bear.” “What do you think the chameleon began to look like?”

If he or she is having a hard time imagining what the chameleon who wanted to be like the elephant would look like ask, “What does an elephant look like?” and “How could the chameleon begin to look like an elephant? What shapes and colors would the chameleon have to become to be like the elephant?” After talking about it, reveal the page to compare how the illustrator visualized the changing chameleon and how you visualized the changing chameleon. After one or two pages, your child may enthusiastically begin imagining how the chameleon will change.

About Rebekah K.

An insomniac since 1979, Rebekah has filled her nights with books & history. Rebekah's earliest memories are of watching documentaries, reading books, and playing Candy Land late at night with her dad. Is it any wonder that she doesn't consider being a librarian and teacher a job? During her fifteen years, in college and K-12 libraries and 10 years in English, ESL, and History classrooms, she has spent her days talking about books and history, sometimes at the same time. Rebekah says, "I love pairing readers with books that are a perfect fit. I feel like I have won a war when a reluctant reader returns to tell me they hated reading; but, after reading a book I recommended, they stay up with a flashlight to read until the page is blurry."