Thursday, February 22, 2007

Duck, duck, goose, goose

After weeks of freezing cold temps and above average snow and ice, this week feels like spring. It's been really beautiful - high around 60, sunny, not too much wind - just my all-time perfect favorite weather. So, since the kids and I have been stuck inside, sick, for about 6 weeks, we decided to go to our fabulous St. Louis Zoo. It's huge and one of the last few free zoos in the country. We get a membership every year and go many times. I've lived here all my life and have had hundreds of trips to the zoo and yesterday, I can say without a doubt, was my very favorite day there ever.

Typically I don't like to take my very young crew downtown by myself. I usually invite another SAHM and her kids to go with us, if it's not the weekend when Hubby can go with us. But my usual gal isn't a homeschooler so school got in the way and for some reason, I decided to just go with the kids by myself. Worried that we might have to leave early because of my sciatica, I packed a picnic lunch and we headed off. I asked the kids which animals they were hoping to see the most. Rose immediately claimed "all the big cats", Matthew wanted to go to "the Herpetarium, so I can see my favorite animal, which are SNAKES!!!", and after asking several times, Jade said something that sounded like her word for "bear" so we went with that.

One of the biggest perks of homeschooling is that you don't have to jam in all the fun "summer stuff" into only 3 months when everyone else is trying to do the same. We had the zoo basically to ourselves. Both kids immediately grabbed a zoo map so they could help navigate (though I have the map in my head). First stop...the bears. Jade practiced saying 'beeeeeeeer' until I think I was calling them beers too. ;) We stopped to watch the polar bear sleeping and a zoo keeper came by, calling out to the bear, "Wha-cha doing? Sleeping, Hope??" She didn't twitch a muscle. The zoo keeper started to leave and I asked, "What did you say her name was?" "Hope" I mentioned that I guessed the warm snap of weather made the animals a little lethargic, as it had done me. She said Hope had been playing a lot this morning and then something that's never happened to me... "If you guys are going to be here for a bit, I'll see if I can get her to play." We heartily agreed and waited to see what she'd come up with. While the kids and I speculated about a water hose, she came around the walk-way with a hard plastic fluorescent ball, bouncing it hard to make the slap-slap-slap sound against the pavement. Hope heard THAT. She immediately jumped up and started to get excited. We watched her play with that ball for a long time. She even poked a hole in it pretty fast with her claw and when that filled up with water, she picked it up and held it with her front paws and drank out of it as if it were a coconut. Rose was absolutely enthralled watching Hope play and do somersaults in the water with that pink ball. All this activity had drawn a small crowd of moms with preschoolers. Matthew read the exhibit sign and saw that it said that polar bears are "nearly threatened" (their endangered status) because their ice caps are melting, 'possibly due to global warming'. He furrowed his eyebrows and said (rather loudly), "We just HAVE to figure out a way to stop global warming! We need to find more ways to use the sun, wind and water for energy and stop using all the machines that create pollution!" I immediately saw the mothers around me straining to see how old this very young voice was and then I felt 'the look'. That one that says I'm a crazed green-loving mother who drills this stuff into her kids heads. Nope. I admit, we do recycle what we can and we have, very briefly, discussed saving energy, pollution, etc. But what came out of his mouth was as much a shock to me as it was to them. We had a great small discussion on global warming and pollution. I find myself constantly asking him where he learned something and the answer usually comes with a shrug, "I don't remember". So I've tried to stop asking. I suppose the answer doesn't really matter but I find I'm curious where he picked it up from.

As we made our way down to see the rest of the bears, there was a man with a demonstration cart so we stopped to take a look. He had pelts of polar bear, grizzly and kodiac, as well as a bear skull. He gave us some information about the different pelts, the uses of their teeth and let us touch all of it. Rose liked being able to touch bear skin. Matthew, my texture-sensitive and germ-a-phobe kid wouldn't touch them. Rose got a very worried look on her face and asked, "Where did you get the bear skins?" The demonstrator explained that they got them off of bears that had died already. She was very relieved to hear that. He told us that the black bears are actually expecting, something that hasn't happened in a very long time at our zoo. And he showed us a stuffed bear about the size of a TY beanie and said that was the size of a newborn bear. He mentioned that bears go into hibernation, sleep through labor and wake up with a newborn baby bear next to them. We already knew this but I patted my 7 month preggo belly and asked him to sign me up for that deal anyway. ;)

We moseyed our way through the outdoor ape section (where there were no apes - I suppose it was still too cool for them to be outside). In the concrete walkway, the zoo had made animal tracks and foliage impressions before the concrete dried and the kids and I had a fun time trying to determine which animal made each track. Surprisingly, the hardest for them to figure out were the bird tracks. The only guess I got on what made that stick-like impression was that they were arrows pointing to the other tracks. ;) I made a mental note to point out the wood peckers feet next time we visit the bird house.

We stopped to look at the pond, full of geese. The pond had a small island in the middle, where all the snow had melted and there was dry land. Part of the pond was still frozen and part wasn't. We shivered when we saw the geese swimming around in the icy water. Rose saw a black swan and was disappointed there were no white ones like in The Ugly Duckling movie Grammy gave us. After a few minutes, we watched a group of geese climb up from the water onto the ice, sit down and try to take a nap. "Look at those silly geese!! Sitting on the cold ice instead of the dry warm island," I said. "Maybe that's why I call you guys 'silly gooses' sometimes because you're as silly as a goose sitting on ice."

We then met up with Hubby, who works not too far away. He met us there on his lunch break and we all had a nice lunch talking about what we'd seen so far. When I told him about the global warming discussion, Matthew piped in with, "You should read more about global warming in my Ranger Rick magazine, Daddy." Aha! I should have known it was that ol' raccoon. ;) I piped up that scientists don't even agree that global warming is actually happening but that some think it is. Matthew says very confidently, "Well, I believe it's happening because I trust myself and that's what I believe."

After saying farewell to Hubby, we headed to the herpetarium (funny...and sad...that this word is not in my browsers dictionary!). The lower level of the herpetarium is small and enclosed so I let Jade out of the stroller to run around a little since she'd mostly been in the stroller or a high chair so far. They have carpeted steps so small kids can get a better view and, silly me, I put her down on a step. Apparently she didn't realize this was a step and fell right off and banged into the stroller. She cut her lip and cried a bit but she was ok and soon was off trying out every single step in the place, as most 2yr olds would. We spent a very long time in the herpetarium - much longer than I've ever spent before. Matthew read most all of the signs and retold the information to us in his own words. Rose, with her eagle eyes, found most all of the animals that were tricky to find before the rest of us did. Jade was ecstatic that she could climb up and look in the windows just like the 'big kids'. I even learned a lot more about snakes and reptiles than I ever wanted to know, just following the kids around listening to them.

We were close to Big Cat Country so we kept climbing the "big hill" until we arrived. The first one we saw was the magnificent tiger. He was pacing around his paddock and even let out a few growls, much to Rose's delight. Most of the cats were basking in the sun on this warmer-than-usual day so we saw they pretty well but the neatest sight was the Amur leopard. He was just gorgeous and he's typically very hard to find in his habitat but on this day, he was pacing around too and we were close enough that I could touch his fur if I reached...not that I did. ;) He was also making noises and Rose was just mesmerized watching him. Rose was quite disappointed that the cheetahs weren't in this area. I explained that they were on the other side of the zoo by the elephants and the other Asian animals. The cheetahs are also typically very hard to spot - they like to hide away from the crowds and it was getting to be quite late in the afternoon. I asked her if we could look for them next time we came and she somewhat sadly agreed that was ok. We rounded the corner and got a quick biology lesson from the zebras (it IS almost spring, ya know).

So we'd seen all the animals the kids really wanted to see (except the cheetahs). But I suddenly said that I'd like to know if they have any meerkats. I guessed that if they were anywhere, they'd probably be in the Children's Zoo. If you've been reading my blog for any time, you know we just adore Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet and Rose's favorite gift for her birthday was a new stuffed meerkat, which she promptly named, "Mozart, when she was a baby".

Back at the bottom of the "big hill", we decided to ride the train. Being off-season, they only had one train running so we had about a 7-10 minute wait. Standing in lines of chain-link at the end of a long day will try the patience of almost any parent, as I was quick to notice around me. Fortunately Rose decided to entertain herself by going underneath the chains and declaring herself a duck. I said that she looked more like a silly goose. After a quick moment of pondering, Matthew quipped up, "Mom, this is a great day. You should blog about it. And I know what you should title it.... "Duck, duck, goose, goose". I think he was right on target. As a member, I get a number of Anywhere Passes. Zoo admission is free but a few sections require $2-4/person to enter such as the Children's Zoo, the train and the Sea Lion Show. Usually tickets are bought at the train station but there was no one in the booth. When we got ready to board, they just waved us on so we got to ride the train without using up any of our passes (something that typically happens off-season, I've noticed).

Matthew and Rose sat in the seat ahead of me and Jade. Jade was downright giddy about riding the train and could hardly contain herself. At the train stations we stopped at, we discussed that it was time to head home. Rush hour would be starting soon and the zoo closed at 5pm anyway. Rose said again that she wished she could see the cheetah but it's a long walk to get to them and she decided to be happy that she got to see all the other animals she wanted to see. As we came around a bend on the last leg of the train, there in all his beautiful glory sat a glorious cheetah, sprawled out in the sun, staring at the train as we passed. Rose and I couldn't have been even slightly happier. What a great ending!!

As we left the zoo, Matthew asked a worker if there were any meerkats in the zoo and he told us they were in the Children's Zoo. Matthew wanted to go back so that I could see the animal *I* wanted to see and I told him I was willing to wait until our next trip to seek them out. "We'll go on a meerkat hunt next trip," I told him.

The day just couldn't have been more beautiful. I don't even remember having to walk through ONE person's cigarette smoke, which is definitely a blessing, especially when pregnant.

On the way home, I wondered why this trip to the zoo was definitely at the top of my list. One reason was the special treatment we got because we came during off-season but I think the biggest reason was that I didn't rush the kids through. Typically when we go with other families or our own, we have an agenda...we want to see this animal and this one and eat lunch and these other two animals and walk past the rest and leave by this time and I seem to spend the day saying, "Come on, Matthew...Rose, we're leaving this exhibit now...etc." But on this day, I let the kids lead. I literally followed them around and didn't urge them on even once. When they wanted to spend 5 minutes searching for that lizard in the herpetarium that I thought didn't exist, I didn't rush them on. We stayed and searched for 5 minutes and found it. We even made it through the gift shop without anyone begging to buy something new. The kids weren't crabby, despite missing their naps; there were no tantrums about anything - it was just plain easy.

I think that's the draw to unschooling for me. When we (as in, Hubby and I) let our kids lead, it's just plain easier all around.


Stacey said...

You are one brave mama...what a great 'field trip'!

Heather said...

Oh that is my favorite thing to do (though due to animal allergies not the zoo). Instead we go to the science center or the museum, or travel (I have friends in Washington DC), we even went to tthe ocean to visit my dad who had a rental , leaving my husband at home to work. :) He hates traveling and I love it--this way the kid get the best of both worlds and learn everywhere. :) Plus the benefits of going everywhere on the off season. Last time we went to the science center in the off season every worker on the floor gave us special attention, especially at the huge miniature railroad exhibit which my train loving son was enthralled with.