Why parents visit zoos with their children: Tools for parenting and moral development

By Elaine Regan - March 2011


Fraser, J. (2009). The anticipated utility of zoos for developing moral concern in children. Curator: The Museum Journal52(4), 349–361.


Parents committed to bringing their children to zoos ascribed the value of the visits to promoting altruism to prepare their children for future social encounters, transferring their own environmental values; encouraging self-esteem; and inculcating cultural norms. ISE educators can attract parents through appealing to moral development for children and aligning with parental goals.

Zoos are a popular out-of-home family leisure choice, motivated by personal enjoyment in social environments where families can share learning and establish relationships as part of a community. There has been much speculation on the reasons for this popularity and the consistency of outcomes achievable. Criticism centres on the absence of literature that demonstrates the outcomes of zoo education programs, particularly in relation to claims connected to conservation of biodiversity or attitude or behavior change. Learning in zoos is thought to be less about direct learning of science content and more about care and concern for nature and conservation.

Studies of parenting behaviors at zoos point to predetermined purposes for the visits that centre on establishing routines linked to social boundaries, family relationships, healthy lifestyles, and moral values. Zoos are also thought to be an out-of-home venue that may contribute to the development of a child's identity, but there is no literature available on whether parents consider this when bringing their children to zoos. This paper builds on prior research by DeVault (2000) and Shaw and Dawson (2001), both of whom demonstrated that zoos are used by parents to inculcate social norms in their children. The paper describes a qualitative study of the value of zoo visits based on home interviews and zoo-based observations of eight families (14 adults interviewed) who frequently visit zoos with their children and prioritize these visits as important for their children. The participants are committed to zoos and have chosen to enroll their children in a zoo-based charter school.

Parents valued zoo visits as a means of promoting their children's altruism skills, which parents felt was a learned skill important for the social success of their children and a foundation for building proper moral development. Furthermore, they believed that the zoo helped to transfer their own personal environmental values and that zoo animals demonstrated biological relationships. Through natural interest in animals, parents hoped that their children would have a sense of accomplishment that would promote educational advantage in school and increase career options. Visiting zoos was believed to assist children with learning cultural norms such as social expectations, roles and responsibilities, and respect. The value of zoo visits by parents is focused on and appears synergistic with the conservation agenda promoted by zoos.

These findings may not be representative of all zoo visitors as the research participants were parents who actively support the zoo through frequent visits and participation in educational programs linked with the zoo and they had a strong interest in environmental issues. This study was part of a larger U.S. national study on the perceived value of zoos to the American public. The summary quantitative data and qualitative findings from the Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter study can be downloaded at no cost from www.ilinet.org/resources.