Why you should fall in love with the zoo again

Africa Alive wildlife park in Suffolk.  It's a beautiful morning in April. We approach the giraffe house. p10"Errr, Mother, look..." I whisper.

"Oh My Goodness!" she said.

Towering above us, not thirty feet away, we see Daddy giraffe (no doubts about that) attempting to entertain Mummy giraffe outside their house. Mummy giraffe seems more interested in the twigs or leaves she's eating (or trying to) but that isn't fanning the flames of lovestruck Daddy giraffe. He knew what he wanted and clearly wasn't shy as twenty or so people (including parents and their children) craned their necks at the paddock fence to watch the action.

Meanwhile, blushing, I could barely watch and was concerned (why?) over how much of this 18 certificate show the twins were watching. No problems there. Each of them had spent the past hour demanding to push their own single buggy around the wildlife park (more on that later) rather than admire the cheetahs, rhinos, lions and zebras we had passed. £32 well spent there then!

"Let's move on", I whispered, ushering my family up towards the playground which was far more likely to grab their attention.

We've been doing the zoo circuit over the past few weeks and it's been a welcome relief to soft play and libraries. It feels like an upgrade. On the New Parents Ten Commandments must do list, going to the zoo is up there with cinemas, swimming and football - all fun things to do for parents and children.

Africa Alive was my first wildlife park visit in over thirty years (if you exclude my visit to the Serengeti pre children) and I loved it. It was fun. It smashed my age old perception of zoos as cramped and cruel places (in the UK anyway).

Africa Alive claims to offer an "awe-inspiring re-creation of the African Savannah, where the animals of the plains roam freely together as in the wild". And to a certain extent I think this is a realistic claim. Giraffes, rhinos, zebras and emus do roam freely together in The Plains of Africa zone and it is stunning. E-Man and Bell were particularly transfixed by Kingdom of the Lion and the Cheetah enclosure.

But as we all know, toddlers have very short attention spans and whilst my two loved the animals, there's one thing that will always guarantee a good day out and a brief respite for parents - a good playground. And Africa Alive gets full marks for its excellent Adventure Play Area. The cynic in me says that at a zoo the animals are for the adults to admire and the playgrounds are for the children. Modern-day zoos do however seem to 'get it': children love a good day out at the zoo, but need a spell in a playground to truly let their hair down.

Next up on the circuit was Colchester Zoo. According to those that know, the zoo is one of Europe's finest with over 260 rare species, not that we were going to see anything like that. I think we saw about ten rare species and eight of them were from the relative comfort of a mini train chugging families around the zoo. They loved the mini train, all toddlers do.

As predicted E-Man and Bell demanded to push their own Maclarens up and down the zoo's beautiful if very hilly Essex countryside. If we politely requested that they sit in their buggies they screamed. If we let them loose they demanded to push their buggies up and down the vast zoo grounds. It often felt like a scene out of the chariot race in Ben Hur as E-Man and Bell battled in a violent and grueling race between the Elephant Kingdom and Penguin Shores. E-Man showed more interest in being Lewis Hamilton for the day than being a Keeper For The Day.

I was however really impressed with Colchester Zoo and the twins had a great time. It genuinely is a magical place and the experience helped change my attitude towards zoos. We all have our reservations about zoos. Caging animals is not something any of us can be comfortable with, but there can be no doubt about the educational effect they have on young minds. And I now have this overriding impression that zoo animals are looked after far better than say 30 years ago.

E-Man was particularly smitten by the female, white rhino calf (named Pembe) at Colchester Zoo and I haven't found anything since that has held his attention span for as long. The Orangutan Forest is truly amazing, you have to go. Your children will love it. The majesty, gentleness and beauty of orangutan almost overwhelmed me. The four of us stood transfixed by these wonderful animals for 20 minutes.

Colchester Zoo reminded me of some the theme parks I have been to in North America: clean and well run. And as for adventure play areas, it offers the best that I have seen. Kids' Safari is the largest Eibe play area in the UK (this is not a sponsored post). Colchester Zoo is definitely worth a visit, but wear a good pair of trainers!

ZSL London Zoo has that magical ingredient: truly, truly amazing animals, history (it was founded in 1820) and great attractions for children. As we walked into the zoo it didn't bode for our visit when Bell was immediately captivated by the ceramic statue of a gorilla just yards away from Tiger Territory. But once inside the zoo proper we marvelled at how 35 acres of land housing 755 species of animals can be found in a park in the centre of London. It was like going into the Doctor's Tardis! "How did all this get into here?"

Penguin Beach at London Zoo

But our Bank Holiday Monday visit to London Zoo (note to self: avoid Bank Holiday visits) proved a great success. It has everything. The new silverback gorilla (the real kind, not ceramic) got the biggest wow vote from the Man and Buggy family. And as the twins are just too young at the moment to sit and watch terrific daily events that the zoo puts on like Penguin Beach Talk and Tigers Live!, we avoided the big crowds by visiting exhibits during briefly quieter spells of the day, like the Gorilla Kingdom (awe-inspiring) Big Cats and the Giraffe enclosure.

Going to the zoo has been a revelation in my life. It feels like a particularly nice perk of the parenting job. Would I have considered going to the zoo before I had children? Probably not. Becoming a parent has introduced me to activities that may have just passed me by. And humans are after all just rational animals. It has been nice to get to know them better.