We've had visiting camels, deer, reptiles, and birds. We've visited dairy farms, goat farms and sheep farms. We've created our own beach with sand, shells and crabs and gone fishing in a super-sized water tank. Mmmm... yes, it's been fun.
But 'safety' is paramount when you're working with kids and especially when animals are a big part of these activities. So.. if you're considering a petting zoo for your Christmas celebration, then please make sure you consider the following recommendations. (Please add any other suggestions you may think of below.)
Children & animals
Children love animals and a petting zoo allows them to gain a greater understanding of the conditions surrounding Jesus' birth. Kids will often make comments like, 'Yuck! It smells!' Yep.. it does. But when Jesus was born in a stable, it wasn't like a hospital, and those were the kinds of smells you'd find there.
Although it's tempting to cut your costs and bring in some animals from a neighbouring farm, please use a registered, insured petting zoo company. Yes, I know they can be expensive but it's worth it. The animals are used to being handled and are comfortable with kids. They have a well-organised setup with a large, portable enclosure with double gates to allow kids to come in but prevent animals escaping. They usually use a waterproof sheeting to avoid any damage and their staff will quickly clean up messes as they occur. That's particularly important if you're having the petting zoo inside. Let's face it.. animals can make a big mess.
*Require supervision: Under 5s must be accompanied by an adult.
It's also helpful to staff the petting zoo activity with additional volunteers to help with supervision. My experience has been that our own kidmin volunteers are more vigilant and quick to step in and help than any outside company's supervision.
*Prohibit food and drink. Don't let kids feed the animals unless the company allows it and provides approved food. Sometimes, feeding bottles are provided for some of the baby animals and kids will be allowed to feed them. Monitor it carefully. Animals can become frantic for their food and push kids aside, even if they're babies, so keep a careful eye on these activities.
Don't let kids enter the animal enclosure carrying food and remind them to keep their hands away from their mouths while they're with the animals.
*Provide handwashing/sanitising stations. Yes, these companies normally include sanitising solutions but it's best to be prepared and set up a special area nearby for this. Make a big deal of it to ensure all the kids wash their hands after handling the animals. Encourage this by giving them a sticker as they wash their hands- helps you see who has washed their hands,too.
*Do not allow the children to pick up any animals. I know this is very tempting for kids, but please enforce the rule. The animals are used to being handled but they can be upset when they're picked up. And.. we don't want animals hurt. Children take a long time to understand the safe and careful way to pick up and hold animals. Some children like to pick up animals to hear them squeal. Keep an eye on this and remind them repeatedly not to pick up animals.
Children and families love and appreciate these opportunities to interact with animals. And, they provide a wonderful source of family discussion. Provide and encourage some simple safety guidelines and this holiday activity will be a memorable event.