WildLanterns at the Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has a new winter-season light display called WildLanterns. The displays are absolutely gorgeous, and walking around the zoo after dark looking at the lanterns made for a special evening for our family in a year with few new and inspiring experiences. I would recommend it for people of any age, although since walking the whole experience takes almost two hours, toddlers and preschoolers may not have as much patience for it as older children and adults.

The Experience

When you arrive, you get into a long but fast-moving socially distanced line. They scan your ticket, and in you go. Most of the time, you’ll be walking along the paths, gazing at the lantern displays around you. There are a few animal exhibits open (the penguins, the meerkats and bats – though the meerkats are diurnal and were all sleeping and the bats were hard to see.)

Everywhere you look, there are beautiful scenes.

There are A LOT of displays!! As you walk down the path by the carousel, there’s otters, then lions, then eagles, then wolves, then orca, one after another after another. And in every area, there are a LOT of every animal. For example, in the panda display, there were at least 28 pandas! We were amazed at how many items were on display. Here are a few photos of some details I particularly liked.

Some animals have moving parts – like a lion’s tail that waves, eagle wings that flap, and more. One of the highlights, when you first enter, near the penguins is a peacock whose tail is lifted with hydraulics for an incredible display – check out the video below. It was fun to watch the children’s delight when the tail came up.

The visuals are great. I think the one thing about the event I would improve is the audio experience. There was music playing – just low key environmental music – it was fine and pleasant but not inspiring. Also, it could have been louder. It was a comfortable volume standing right in front of a speaker, but faded to pretty quiet when you were between speakers.

We walked the Living Northwest loop, then through the Jungle Lights zone fairly quickly (since we knew we’d be back, and it was the most crowded area, then Seamazium with an underwater theme, then the African Savanna zone, then a desert area, then back through Jungle Lights.

It is beautiful, and a festive winter event, but I think it’s worth noting that it is not a “winter holidays” event. You will not hear Christmas music or see a lit-up dreidel or a solstice celebration. If you’re specifically hoping for Christmas theme, you may want to try another special event.

Interactive Zones

Near the south entrance, there is a tree surrounded by lit up stars on the ground. If you step on them, they make musical notes! Near there, in the African village, you’ll find a lit up piano to walk on. (A staff person makes sure people line up nicely and enter the area one household at a time.) On the Jungle Lights path, there’s an area with a cool lit-up tunnel to walk into, and a photo opp with angel wings and a halo (my son doesn’t appear to have a halo in this picture… hmmm….)

Also in that area is my favorite thing of the whole event: there are bubble blowing machines that must dip into dry ice, so they blow streams of these cool opaque bubbles, and when the bubbles pop, they release clouds of gas. You’ll see them in the video below. (Note, the bubbles were the most challenging place to maintain social distancing, because we all wanted to crowd together in the stream of bubbles. There were lots of playful giggles from the children, and delighted sounds from adults too.)

The Logistics

WildLanterns will be held November 13, 2020 – January 17, 2021, from 4:00 – 8:30 p.m. They are closed Mondays and November 26 and December 24 & 25.

Scheduling

You MUST purchase your tickets in advance. They are for a specific day and for a specific entry time. (For example, we had tickets for 7:00 pm on Saturday 11/28. We were asked not to arrive before 6:55, and not to arrive after 7:30 pm.) Once you arrive, you can spend as long as you choose there. We walked at a leisurely pace through all exhibits, stopped for a quick snack and a bathroom break and it took us one hour 45 minutes.

Ours was the last timeslot of the day, and I recommend that for adults or those whose children have later bed times. When we first arrived, we did the “Living Northwest” loop and Jungle Lights, and on Jungle Lights, there were times where it felt a little too crowded for my COVID comfort. (i.e. there were people who passed within 12 feet of me.) And there was a long line for the interactive area. But by the time we were moving through Seamazium and the African Savannah, there was hardly anyone else around. When we passed by the Jungle Lights interactive area again (at 15 minutes till zoo closing time) we were some of the very few people left.

If you want to minimize the number of people there when you attend, I’m sure weekdays are slower than the Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend was. And January will almost certainly be slower than December.

Cost

It’s $28.95 per adult (13+). $23.95 for children ages 3 – 12. Toddlers 2 and under are free. Parking is $4. If that seems steep to you, I ask you to consider two things: First, remember that you’re supporting the zoo during a year of financial hardship for them and all public exhibitions. Second, there’s not a lot of other holiday activities to spend money on this year, so it’s a great year to check out this event. Some other year you’ll spend your holiday event budget on the Nutcracker. This can be your special event this season.

Weather

WildLanterns is a rain or shine event—there will be no ticket refunds for weather. The night we were there was a clear night with no wind or rain. It was in the mid 40’s when we arrived, and 40 when we left.

I was wearing flannel-lined jeans, a coat, lightweight gloves, lightweight earmuffs, and my mask and was very comfortable the whole time.

If it’s a rainy night, wear rain gear and bring an umbrella! The only places I remember where you could have gotten out of the rain were: the covered seating under the tent by Gather and Graze (for those who are eating), the building in the African Savannah, and the meerkat exhibit, and you can’t be in either of those places for very long due to COVID requirements to keep distanced.

There were some fire pits in a few places around the zoo. They ask that you only gather at them with members of your own household, and then move on to let others use them. They were good for warming your hands over if you held them close to the flame, but they weren’t body warming intensity.

Food and Beverages

There were snacks in the North Meadow, Gather and Graze, and at the south end of the zoo. I saw: popcorn, hot pretzels, cotton candy, hot drinks. There may have been more, but we’d eaten dinner just before coming, so we didn’t look closely. You can also bring your own food. All food must be eaten in designated areas and cannot be consumed all around the zoo (because you need to remove your mask to eat.)

COVID Precautions

Everyone over the age of 5 is required to wear a mask properly. Children age 2 to 5 are encouraged to wear masks. You are asked to stay at least 6 feet apart from other guests. We were able to maintain this almost the whole time, but around the bubbles at the interactive exhibit, children were running and playing in the bubbles and were closer, and people also crowded around the peacock, although there was no need to, as you could watch easily from a long ways away. The Jungle Lights path is the most crowded area, as the two loops overlap there. Bathrooms were open, but I didn’t use them, so can’t report anything there. No strollers are available for rent (bring your own) but you can rent a wheelchair.

More Activities

If you’re looking for more lovely winter walks in King County, check out my post on low-contact parks on the Eastside, which highlights some lesser known gems that are rarely crowded – helpful in COVID times. If you have children under the age of five, I highly recommend you check out the parent education programs offered by all our community college programs – fun learning for your kids, and social connections and support for you in these isolating times. Some are in-person now, many are online only. (If you’re dubious about online learning for young children check out this article on online preschool.)

ChallengingBehavior.org

feeligns

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) has lots of great free research-based resources on their site at http://challengingbehavior.org – from that page, click on the link in the lower right hand corner that says “For Families: Resources” and that will take you to http://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/Implementation/family.html

There are several sections of this page – here’s what you’ll find:

  • Making Life Easier: tip sheets on how to turn events that are often challenging for parents into something more manageable or even enjoyable. Covers: Bedtime / Naptime, Diaper Changes, Going to the Doctor / Dentist, Holidays, and Errands.
  • Visual Schedules: how to use this powerful tool for teaching routines and expected behaviors: first you do this, then we’ll do that.
  • Backpack Connection Series: a way for teachers and parents/caregivers to work together to help young children develop social emotional skills and reduce challenging behavior. Handouts on four topics:
    • Addressing Behavior – Biting, Hitting, Whining, Meltdowns
    • Teaching Emotions – Anger, Fear, Frustration, etc.
    • Routines and Schedules – and how they reduce family challenges
    • Social Skills, Sharing, Taking Turns, Appropriate ways to get attention
  • Family Articles – Making the Most of Playtime, Teaching your child about feelings (from birth to age 2), Teaching Independence with Daily Routines
  • Scripted Stories – I like Tucker Turtle Takes Time to Think. The “turtle technique” is a really helpful skill for my kid who struggles with emotional regulation.
  • Teaching Social Emotional Skills – includes graphics for a feelings chart (see picture above) and problem solving steps.
  • General Resources. Includes a helpful brochure called Positive Solutions for Families: 8 Practical Tips for Parents of Young Children with Challenging Behaviors.

Elsewhere on the site is a helpful video for child care providers or parents about how to teach social skills and emotional skills in the preschool classroom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVqjF7BDsnw&feature=youtu.be

Keys to Brain Development

In the first five years of life, a child’s brain grows from 25% the size of an adult’s brain at birth to 92% the size of an adult’s brain. All that growth comes from making connections – connections built through hands-on, multi-sensory experiences of their world. There are several ways parents can support their children’s growth and development. This video gives a quick summary, and I’ll give more details below.

Novelty – New Experiences

The parent can provide a diverse array of new experiences. These don’t have to be fancy, they don’t have to be expensive, they don’t have to be based on advanced scientific research. These are just the everyday experiences of life. Just simple activities like going for a walk, looking at the clouds, stomping in puddles, touching a slug, coming home and making hot chocolate together, snuggling up on the couch with a good book, playing with blocks, then drawing pictures. Any new experience builds connections in a child’s brain.

And if you don’t have the energy to think of something new to do, try putting together two familiar things in a new way, and see what your child does differently. For example, take the rubber duckies from the bathtub and put them with the Duplos, or take the colander from the kitchen to the bathtub. Your child will be delighted by the new possibilities. Learn more about “invitations to play.”

I have a whole collection of easy free activities with toddlers to get you inspired. (Not all are do-able in the coronavirus era, but most are.) Everything from “nature shopping” to “counting cars”, from “construction theater” to year-round egg hunts.

I want to encourage my child’s growth in all diverse knowledge and skills. I find it helpful to think about categories of development – have we done anything today to build large motor skills? What about fine motor skills? I also find the theory of multiple intelligences to be a helpful guide to inspiring new ideas – have we tried out any music today? And spatial challenges? Here’s an article I wrote on choosing toys and activities for toddlers that build multiple intelligences.

I do encourage you to offer your child lots of learning opportunities, but please don’t feel like you have to be doing a non-stop song and dance, tossing new things into the ring continuously. That would be exhausting for you! But it could also teach your child that the only way to be happy is to be continually entertained with new things. They would also be missing out on the full depth of possible learning if you did this and ignored the next two keys to brain development: repetition and down time.

Repetition – Doing it Again and Again Builds Mastery

Doing something for the first time makes a connection. Doing it again strengthens that connection. Doing it again in a different setting strengthens that connection and also makes connections to this new setting. Combining that activity with another deepens understanding. Think of a child learning to walk – they fall again and again until the a-ha moment happens. But then they still stumble and wobble along for a while. But the more they walk, the better they get at it. Or think of anyone learning an instrument – we don’t become expert by going to a class once a week. To become a skilled musician requires playing those same scales again and again till you reach mastery.

Don’t rush them. If they’re just barely starting to understand something and you push them onward, they’ll have a shaky foundation for future learning. For example, if you have a child who has just barely learned to count to three, don’t feel like you have to rush them on to 4, 5, 6… 10… 100. Let them stay at three for a while – really exploring three, getting to the point where they can tell at a glance if they have three objects or more than that or less than that. If you can do this, your child will have such a solid understanding of the fundamentals of math, everything later on will make more sense.

When my oldest kids were little, I probably over-did the novelty. I felt like I continuously had to provide new experiences. My oldest child resisted transitions so much, and looking back, I think a big part of it was that he was always feeling forced to move on before he was ready. By the time my third child came along, I had learned a lot about the importance of repetition for brain development, so I was willing to let him do things again and again. It’s a good thing, because that little boy has deep passions and wants to immerse himself in the same things for weeks or months on end.

But with him, I saw clear evidence of everything the research says about repetition and also about following a child’s interests. When he was wild about dinosaurs, we could teach everything else he needed to learn in that context – we could teaching counting, and colors, and music and art, all focused on dinosaurs. When he had the chance to do something again and again, he developed so much self-esteem in seeing himself as a competent learner. Whenever he was feeling anxious about anything else, returning to this familiar territory helped get him grounded and feeling capable, then he could take on new challenges.

There is a concept called Schemas of Play, which addresses how children tend to be working on a few key ideas at any given time. They might be exploring: Trajectory – kicking and throwing balls, or Transportation – carrying things everywhere, or Connecting – assembling puzzles. They may repeat the same activity over and over, but know that they are learning important concepts by doing that. Check out some ways to support your child’s schemas of play.

Down Time – to Process it All

Children need rest. It is during sleep that we build myelin sheaths that insulate our nerve pathways, helping us access information more quickly and efficiently apply that knowledge to new situations. (Nutrition is also important. To build myelin, they also need a diet with plenty of healthy fats, like fish oils, nuts, avocados, olive oil, and whole milk. Learn more about nutrition for growing brains.)

They need down time – time to putter around the house “doing nothing.” Time to play aimlessly. Time to “waste time.” When they don’t appear to be doing anything, it may be because they are processing all the new learning they’ve been experiencing, and they need time to take it all in and incorporate it.

Don’t feel like you have to constantly entertain your child. When they are “bored” is when they may come up with some of their most creative ideas. They might make connections between things on their own. I remember once my daughter, who was 5 at the time, was complaining about how bored she was. I told her “I need to finish this work… figure out what to do for 15 minutes, OK?” My work took longer than expected, and when I went to find her 45 minutes later, she had all the toy horses arrayed on the table, and proceeded to tell me all their names, ranks and how they were related: “Princess Snowy is getting married to Duke Blaze – he is from a different kingdom where his sister… ” She’d created this whole complex imaginary play world, which she would never have done if I was hovering over her guiding her play.

I think it can feel tricky to find the right balance between feeling like we should introduce novelty and guide learning and knowing when to step back and let them explore on their own. It could be something as simple as having a bedtime story routine – each night, we read two stories – one for novelty, one for repetition, and then I let my child look at books on her own for a few minutes before turning off the light. (Here’s more about choosing books for your child.)

Read this article on How Much is Enough, How Much is Too Much which looks at questions like how many toys to buy, how many activities to schedule, and how screen time fits in.

Check out my past writing on brain development, which includes more about the science of brain development.

Choosing Books for Your Child

We know that children learn through novelty and repetition. Through being exposed to new experiences and new ideas and by being given the chance to do those activities and explore those ideas over and over again. Books are one place this can play out. When my children were young, we always read two books at bedtime. My child gets to choose one and I choose the other. Children will often have a favorite of the moment, and that’s great! Reading that same book over and over gives them the learning benefits of repetition. I can then make sure we’re reading one new book each night to balance that with novelty. Or, if they’re always seeking new books because they’re “bored” of the old ones, I can return to one we’ve read before, reading it slowly and finding new things to point out in it and new things to talk about, teaching the depth of understanding that can come through literature at all ages.

We read a few hundred kids’ books a year at that rate. And yet… our family only owns about 20 children’s books, carefully curated from those hundreds I’ve read. We only buy and keep the most special of them all. This is better for our budget, better for the environment, and also helps to avoid the overstimulation of a house full of too much stuff. So, how do we access all those great books?

Your Local Library

We make extensive use of our local library. When my kids are little, we always have ten library books in the house per kid. We go to the library once a week – we take back any books we’re done with, but keep the ones that we still want to read. Some weeks we bring back ten and take home our ten for novelty. Other weeks, only one or two books exchange as we keep reading and re-reading the current favorites. We are blessed with one of the best library systems in the country, where we can peruse the library catalog online, choose our favorite books and put them on hold – within a few days, the books are delivered to our local branch for a quick pickup. But even in a small library system, there’s plenty of children’s books to read!

Online Library Resources

There are several libraries of online children’s e-books. We can access Libby, Hoopla, Tumble Book Library and BookFlix for free through our library (For King County folks, learn how at: https://kcls.org/resources-types/ebooks-format/). And we can access Sora through our public school system. Check with your local library to see if you can do that. Or, some apps also have paid options, covered on their sites.

Hoopla is a digital media service offered by public libraries that allows users to borrow movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows to stream or download for free. Over 1500 library systems in the US and Canada subscribe to Hoopla. Go to www.hoopladigital.com and click on “get started” to find out if your library offers it. Here’s some of the STEM resources on Hoopla. I like that you can set Hoopla to “kids’ mode” on your computer so it only offers kid-appropriate materials.

Epic Books

This is a subscription service – $9.99 per month for a library of 40,000 e-books, including picture books, read-to-me and audio books. I have not explored it, but it looks good.

Online Reviews and Samples

When I’m looking for a new book to read for a class, I make extensive use of online reviews, such as those on Amazon, GoodReads, and Barnes and Noble. As with all online reviews, I take them with a grain of sand. Sometimes something that troubles one reviewer is a plus for me. And sometimes a book they say didn’t appeal to their child for a particular reason might lead me to think it’s the perfect book for my kid! But reviews give you a good sense of what to expect.

On Amazon, many books have a “look inside” feature that lets you check out a few pages. I find this especially helpful for assessing reading level. Sometimes their age guidelines say one thing, and then I look at the sample text, and I think it’s better for a different developmental level than they suggest.

YouTube

If there’s a book you want to try out, search for it on YouTube. For example, search of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar read-aloud”. You’ll find LOTS of videos of people reading the book aloud and showing the pictures. Some of these videos are excellent quality. Some are not – sometimes it’s hard to see the pictures well, some folks are not enjoyable narrators to listen to. But it’s a good way to check out a book to see if you like it enough to get your own copy. I have also used these videos when teaching online classes – I mute the audio track and read along, using my own voice.

I think it’s important to note that while some publishers and authors have given permission for the use of their books in this way, many of these videos are a violation of the copyright of the author. Please do support authors by buying the best of these books.

Where to Buy

If you’re looking for just any kids’ books, you can often find them cheap at garage sales, thrift shops, and used book stores. Or, check to see if you have a local Buy Nothing group or similar group on Facebook in your area.

When you are looking to purchase a specific book new, consider purchasing through your local, independent bookstore. You can often call and place an order and they’ll have it waiting for you when you arrive. If they don’t have it in stock, they can order it for you. You can also check out Book Riot’s list of independent bookstores around the country, many of which will ship books anywhere, or check out IndieBound, where you can choose to shop directly from them but some of the proceeds are sent to independent bookstores, or you can choose “shop local” to be transferred to your local store’s website to complete the purchase. Shopping locally benefits your local community, reduces the environmental impact of shipping, and supports jobs in your community.

If you do choose to purchase at Amazon, consider either:

  1. Use Amazon Smile where a portion of the profits are donated to a charity of your choice – at no extra cost to you.
  2. Follow an affiliate link. Many bloggers (like me) use affiliate links in their book recommendation lists. If you follow that link, then purchase any product on Amazon, that blogger gets a small referral fee – at no extra cost to you. It’s a good way to support people whose work you find helpful. So, pick your favorite blog that uses affiliate links, and bookmark it, and anytime you want to shop at Amazon, go through that link.

Recommended Books

I include lots of book recommendations on my blogs! Here are links to several of those resources: