Oklahoma City family fun offers fascinating surprises sometimes.
We chose to spend our very last summer weekend away from home with a daytrip to the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks. I was skeptical about our visit because it came right in the middle of all things back-to-school, with all the implied preparations and related anxiety. The fact that getting to Jenks meant a two-hour car ride also had me wondering if it was going to be worth the drive, especially since our youngest is just four months and tends to cry in the car.
An aquarium in a small town within a landlocked state seemed like an odd fit but we decided to grab some snacks, settle in and enjoy the ride. I'm so glad we did visit because what we found was surprisingly relevant for families. When I mentioned to friends where we headed for the weekend, they tended to nod and say they had visited years ago. If your child loves nature and you haven't yet visited or it's also been years since you have, take the time to make the trek.
Here are four surprising reasons to visit the Oklahoma Aquarium:
- Go see the sharks: The aquarium houses North America's largest collection of bull sharks. NBC's "The Today Show" and the BBC recently visited to cover all that's happening with the sharks on-site, which is totally unexpected when you consider this facility is tucked away in what's a somewhat remote area of the country. Every person I talked to prior to visiting brought up what's known as "the shark tunnel." The Sigfried Families Shark Adventure is an incredible experience because you're really brought into an area that's dark and echoes and that feels like someplace else entirely, with sharks swimming overhead and beside you just beyond the glass. My sons, who were way too into Shark Week this summer and are the first to turn on shark documentaries, were a little hesitant to enter. I was amazed, though, that the innermost area is meditative and peaceful. Water is relaxing to me and watching the sharks swim didn't feel dangerous, just beautiful.
- Inspire conservation in kids: There's a lot of attention right now about plastic straws and how they affect marine life. What exactly that life is, though, remains somewhat hard to imagine. Even though we have access to some excellent books and TV shows (including those that feature this exact aquarium), going in person to see living creatures can inspire another level of concern.
- Enjoy a full day of sightseeing in one place: I was concerned we would run out of things to do. We didn't. The facility is huge. There are more than 100 different exhibits to explore, including new areas like Sea Turtle Island, which opened in March 2017, and an area called The Polynesian Reef that features zebra sharks and more than 500 tropical fish. There's a cafe at the aquarium so it's easy to get lunch or a snack and make a day of it. Areas designed with kids in mind make all the difference in children's level of engagement. They can feed stingrays without having to purchase food and they're literally right there, a foot from your child. Designated spaces where children can touch items like sea anemones, starfish and other aquatic animals make it a more personable experience. There's a yellow submarine that serves as an observation point under the water for those small enough to crawl inside and look up at all the amazing fish and turtles swimming all around them. Similar concepts exist throughout the aquarium, including areas that focus on the Amazon Jungle; it's a really immersive experience and I felt strange that we weren't getting wet despite seeing everything up close and in such a tangible way.
- Ask about research projects: Staffers on-site aren't only tour guides and general employees. The aquarium's scientists, who were endowed with a grant from the National Science Foundation for their innovative coral research, come to work every day to study bull sharks and they've worked on projects that have global implications, like how to create stronger mooring lines for weather buoys. You can inquire about what their latest team focus is and how that research impacts more than what we can see or immediately know about. That sort of conversation could very well spark curiosity for a young marine biologist in your household. I suspect the visit overall may have in mine, as my first-grader is so into nature that I cannot imagine him not studying a science. My husband is from Costa Rica and I would love to send him away to pursue a related field. Seeing all of that right here in our state, though, was amazing.
"We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about what's in the depths of our oceans," said Julia Gibson, an education curator who met us at the aquarium. I could tell how important the science of ocean life is to her; that passion is her life's work and she was so eager to share what's so amazing about it.
The aquarium was crowded but there were still ways to ask curators like Julia questions throughout about the different flora and fauna we saw. I really appreciated that aspect of the visit because kids do have so many questions they want to ask or wonder about that we as parents really struggle to answer, like "Will this turtle outlive me?" and "How can I help sharks not go extinct?"
Having a connection to something else, the broader picture, is the main unspoken reason I would encourage families to visit the Oklahoma Aquarium. Our routines are important and there's a lot going in family life, with parents' endless debates about screen time and whose turn it is to do chores. Remembering that we're part of a larger community and all that is around us also feels important to teach as a parent, especially as we talk through consequences and how everything we do has an impact in some way. The fact that animals aren't just cartoon characters, fictitious or far-removed from our inland state, is also important to make those science lessons they'll see in school something with real life relevance.
I would like to think we're raising kids who care about the environment and are responsible citizens. Places like the Oklahoma Aquarium make my job as a parent easier in that way. They do the showing and telling for me, which is so much more impactful than repeating "Turn off the water while you brush your teeth" and "Are you sure you need a plastic water bottle every day?" as constant refrains.
Plan your Fall Break now and leave time to see the new Polynesia Reef exhibit. You'll come back refreshed and ready to focus again. Visiting made for a great start to the school year and two hours in the car is just the start of your day's adventure. I didn't know it was possible to take in so much science information without first getting on a plane.
All that's here to see and do keeps surprising us and the Oklahoma Aquarium just might surprise but also inspire your children too. Isn't that what school is really about anyway, the wonder of all that we share?