Friday, April 26, 2013

Learning with your child is a big parenting perk

From today's Briefing:

One of the great perks of parenthood is drawing from the innate enthusiasm of children.

I’ve driven into downtown Dallas thousands of times. I’m a little numb to the experience. But every time we journey as a family from the north into downtown, Cooper and Katie find details worthy of exclamation. The arena! The tall green building! Reunion Tower!

Another perk: learning details about the world that you somehow missed — or possibly forgot — during childhood.

When, say, Cooper is immersed in a self-taught study of Greek gods or the Civil War, I get to hear all about it.

Katie’s been on a zoology kick for a couple of years now, so the whole house knows about dolphins and harp seals, wild turkeys and porcupines. We’ve watched every episode of Wild Kratts multiple times.
Imagine, then, the enthusiasm level attached to an overnight stay at the Dallas Zoo.

We! Were! Super! Excited!

I help lead Katie’s Girl Scout troop, which, in this case, means that I helped convince all the other Brownie mommas to spend the night removed from the comforts of home. In a giant room with a concrete floor. Not far from wild animals.

The field trip was a success, save the lack of restful sleep. (The word sleepover has always been a misnomer.)

Our suburban crew started the adventure in the reptile house. Before we entered, though, we heard the unmistakable roar of lions.

A serenade, our zookeeper called it. Then he shared the most comforting news of the night: There are “Code Red” animals that are doubly locked away after hours. That roar would be our only sign of the most dangerous zoo residents.

We relied on flashlights to check out a healthy collection of venomous snakes. We learned the difference between a deadly coral snake (red touch yellow, kill a fellow) and a harmless milk snake (red touch black, friend of Jack).

We stared in awe at Butter, an albino, yellow and white, 20-foot reticulated python. Butter was safely contained behind glass, but we learned that the 200-pound snake likes exercise and gets to slither freely on the floor — the very floor on which we stood — in the mornings before patrons arrive.

Our tour continued, offering hands-on interaction with dead animals in the form of wallets and jackets, shoes and doodads — a lesson designed to encourage protection of endangered species. We handled a few live animals, too, gingerly petting a snake (a fraction of Butter’s size), a lizard and an opossum (much cuter than I’d expected).

Our zookeeper-led discussions covered habitat, adaptation, natural predators, diet and more. Did you know that flamingos mate for life? That the okapi wasn’t recognized as a distinct species outside of its native Africa until the early 1900s? That the blue-tongued skink tries to trick predators into thinking it’s a death adder snake?

After so much learning and exploring and some campfire s’mores, the group was more than ready to settle into sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses. By midnight, we were in bed, if not exactly asleep.

The next morning included breakfast (mercifully with some coffee for moms) and more touring and animal watching before we shoved our gear into minivans and SUVs for the drive home.

Katie was too tired on the trek north to say much about the flashy Omni Hotel or the waterfall billboard. She did say, before “resting” her eyes, “Momma, thank you for zoo sleepover. I’ll never forget it.”

That’s one of the other great perks of parenthood: creating memories with your child that you’ll both remember forever.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Katie on a butterfly bench at the Dallas Zoo (photos by Julianne Amezcua)

Brave Girl Scout leader

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