A Guide to Dialectic Learning at the Zoo

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We love our local zoo. And we aren’t the only ones who love it–it is regularly named to lists of the best zoos in the country. Living close enough to squeeze in zoo days a couple times per week all summer long sure is a blessing! We get our money’s worth out of our membership, that’s for sure.

My kids are now 13, 10, and 4. I hear a lot of people say they give up their zoo memberships as their kids get older because the kids aren’t into it anymore. Well, I say WHY?!? You can work so much school into a trip to the zoo especially as the kids move from the grammar stage into the dialectic stage, when  more learning comes through discussion. A zoo day is a fabulous conversation starter. The trick is to find ways to work in things they are already studying, or at least tie what they are seeing to the subjects they are studying.

We call these connections to the real world CC Sightings. When our Classical Conversations Community meets, the kids can’t WAIT to share the CC Sightings they’ve had in the past week. It’s a great way to reinforce what they are learning and get even the youngest kids discussing! This weekend, I was eating lunch with my husband when one of my Challenge A students walked in. She saw me and ran over to tell me she’d had a CC Sighting that morning! It doesn’t seem to matter the age, everyone loves a CC Sighting. Of course, if you use a different curriculum, you can call it something applicable to your learning.

Another key factor to Classical Education is subject integration. That means we try to make all of our subjects connect and intertwine. Knowledge should not be stored neatly in separate boxes in our brain. Everything should connect. Latin is not separate from history and English Grammar is not separate from science. It all connects and we need it all to work together to make our brains work well. So the goal at the zoo is to show how all of our subjects connect with the zoo itself!  We integrate all of our subjects with the zoo mostly by looking for those CC Sightings and getting dialectic!


There was a model of a giraffe’s vertebra. So I said, “Oh! A single one of these bones is a vertebra but if you have more, you have vertebrae! Hmm… that sounds like LATIN! In which declension is the singular -a and the plural -ae?” There was much groaning because they HATE when Latin pops up in the real world, but the reality is, Latin is EVERYWHERE, they just didn’t notice it before. (By the way,  -a, -ae is the singular and plural for first declension nominative case.  Now you haven’t escaped learning Latin today, either!)


For whatever reason, the kids decided they needed to figure out when the zoo opened and when each area was built. So they spent a lot of time today reading the signs and trying to put together the history of the zoo itself. Modern history is important, too. It helps them connect to the larger scope of history. That’s why the CC timeline says, “I’m part of my timeline” right? 🙂 We talked about each child’s first trip to the zoo, too!


Well, it’s the zoo, so… basically everything, right? Specifically today we stopped to look at several different models of bones from various animals. We talked about what some of the animals eat, anatomy, etc. They stopped to talk to a zoo keeper who was doing a chat about honey badgers. They stopped to read the info at different exhibits. Science isn’t a subject you really have to push at the zoo, it’s already everywhere!

Take time to read the information on display!

English Grammar

My darling son, and not the youngest one, actually said during our zoo visit that something was “gooder” than something else. Guess what happened? English grammar lecture right there in front of the wrinkled hornbill! In the end, he begged for forgiveness and admitted his wrongdoing.


Our zoo always has a map with the info about each animal so that you can see where they live. We always take time to point those out. Today our conversation somehow got to the horn of Africa and we talked about how the horn is actually only made up of one country–Somalia.

A big discussion today was that one of the orangutans is named Asmara. Orangutans are from Indonesia but Asmara is the capital of the African country of Eritrea. So we wondered a bit why an African name was chosen for an Indonesian animal. We still don’t know the answer but we had a good discussion about it. And that’s another thing to note–when you are getting into dialectic discussion with your kids, you don’t have to know it all. It’s ok to say you don’t know! Ask good questions and see what the kids know and if you can’t answer a question they ask back, promise them you will dig into it more later.

Our  zoo is broken into geographical sections, so we often spend the car ride over arguing back and forth.  “I went to go to Australia today!” “No, we went there last week, I want to go to Africa!”

Africa won today. We hung with these adorable lions. I am cat lover and big cats are included in that. I could stand and watch these lions all day long.


For my four year old, it’s a great place to count EVERYTHING. How many turtles did you see? How many different animals did you look at in Africa? Which family is bigger, ours or the orangutans?

The orangutan family is fun to watch!

With the older kids, they each have a zoo budget of money they can spend on drink refills, ride tokens, giraffe feeding, etc. So they have to keep track of what they spent and what they have left. They also have a rotation of who’s turn it is to pay to refill our zoo cup on every zoo day we take (you buy it once and can refill it for $1 each time for the entire zoo season). They had to count out correct change to pay for it. They also calculated how many years the zoo has been open and how long ago the new version of Africa opened (my middle child was a little baby when it opened!).

Overall, I could rest easy in the idea that our zoo day certainly counted as a school day. Of course, we had done our Morning Basket/Loop Schedule school in the morning and stopped at the library on the way home to load up on books for the week. So those activities rounded out our day nicely.

If you have thought that your dialectic stage kids are too old for the zoo, I strongly encourage you to give it a try! Your kids are finally at the age where you can have quality conversations–take them places that will inspire topics to talk about!



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