Quick Guide: Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison

Our guest blogger, Dawn Klausmeier, is a Certified Child Life Specialist and owner of doseofplay.com. Dose of Play shares resources to support children facing illness, injury, and death of a loved one. Using skills and experience as a child life specialist and mother of two, the mission behind Dose of Play is to continue to serve families in our community beyond the hospital walls.

As kids deserve to be kids, more than their illness or injury, Dose of Play also focuses on providing play inspiration to nourish little minds, mindfulness activities and therapeutic outlets for bigger kids and teens. Tips and resources found on doseofplay.com can translate to fostering positive coping with non-medical stressors, too, such as separation anxiety from parents when starting school.

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Did you know that Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison is one of only a handful of zoos in the country that is admission-free, community supported?! Donations are appreciated, but not required.


As a stay-at-home/work-at-home mom, I try to schedule in a few fun adventures a week with my kids. I have a 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, and a 1 ½-year-old boy, Robby. These activities provide a change of scenery, different sensory play opportunities, socialization, and helps increase the likelihood that I can get naps out of both kids!

Aside from Olivia’s #2-bathroom break fake out at the start of the trip (had to wake little brother who just fell asleep), our trip to Henry Vilas Zoo went off without a hitch!Taking a drive for some fun is well worth the gas money and time if I can sneak in a little dose of me time! I listened to two podcasts + enjoyed a quiet ride while both kids napped.

When we arrived, around 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday, barely anyone was there. There was one small school group and a handful of other small families, but otherwise it felt like we had this smaller zoo all to ourselves.

F U N!

This small, but mighty cute zoo has lemurs, orangutans, 4 huge and vocal lions, a porcupine, camel, hippo, grizzly bears, polar bear, and more! Aside from seeing the animals, I like that zoo days allow for kids to have some freedom in running from one exhibit to the next.

One of our favorite parts of this zoo was their indoor Conservation Carousel ($2/passenger) and the amazing outdoor play space. They also have a train, but it wasn’t running that day. The outdoor space had a bridge, multiple slides and a couple of cute animal sculptures that are frame worthy opportunities (+ Instagram loveable).

To help Olivia face her fears, with things like big slides, she finds courage in saying “I’m brave like a _____(animal) !” It’s a playful tip I learned from watching The Bucket List Family on YouTube. Any guesses which animal she picked to be brave like down the big slide? Head on over to MiltownMoms on Instagram to find out!

Helpful Hints:

The zoo was easy to navigate, but even though it was smaller than our zoo in Milwaukee, I would still recommend bringing your stroller or wagon for keeping the show moving when needed. They also have wheelchairs and strollers available to rent at a small fee.

I would bring your own snacks. They do have two restaurants that are open during regular hours, but at least one of them didn’t appear to be open during our visit. Snacks are what keep my troop happy!

Meltdown Busters

Since young kids are full of big emotions and can have meltdowns at any moment, I thought I would share my recently most-used “doses of silly play” that keep the fun flowing and redirect kids when needed.

Mood Boosters:

“Don’t laugh! Don’t you dare even smile!” This works to elevate Olivia’s mood about 97% of the time after a sibling “disagreement” or general funky mood. Robby also loves our animated faces. Have fun with it – picture a sly frown that evolves into a smirk then a smile.

Pretend or just say you’re the animal you’re looking at and then make an animal sound that doesn’t correspond. Play it up and play it off like you’re surprised when your child corrects you. This one just tickles Olivia each time, even when she is angry or sad.

Waiting in lines:

We pretend “catch” butterflies, flies, frogs, fish, you name it We have fun describing the ones we each caught and act really dramatic each catch.

To help with departure:

Play I Spy with the animals and scenery as you make your way to the exit! For Robby, I simplify it by naming an animal near the exit and saying “Monkeys, where are you?” When he mimics me, it adorably sounds like “air are (y)ouuuu?”

I also find preparing them for departure and giving them a dose of control helps the transition (e.g. Pick one more thing to do at the play space and then we are leaving).

Another huge help for departures for the toddler and preschool stage is saying bye to the space. It sounds silly, but I find it really helps give some closure and wrap up the experience for a young child.

I also teach my daughter deep breathing, mindfulness, & label her emotions. If all else fails, snacks also work ????

For more fun ways to add a dose of silly into your days, visit doseofplay.com/blog/dose-of-silly-play.

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