Pets and Pedagogy
Originally appears in the Winter 2015 issue
“Daisy, our European Brown Bear Hamster, is a great classroom pet to have. She helps us with our fluency because we all take turns reading out loud to her in the hall during free reading time. Daisy also makes the day more fun just by being here at school with us. We sit in a circle and let her run around inside of it while we take turns reading, or when our teacher reads to us. It is also fun for us to just hold her because she makes everybody happy and calm. In all, I think it’s a great opportunity to have Daisy around, and I think all classrooms should have a pet like Daisy.” Mark, 4th grade Wisconsin student
THE JOURNAL EXCERPT ABOVE reflects some of the many benefits of welcoming a pet into your classroom. The rich and rewarding experience, opens up exciting opportunities for curriculum development and educational activities, while simultaneously fostering a unique setting to forge community amongst school-aged children. Classroom pets help to establish a foundation of shared responsibility, respect, and how-to when it comes to caring for another living creature. Keeping a pet in the classroom is a great way to break down bullying barriers, build a sense of appreciation for nature and the natural world, and introduce thought provoking lessons that make learning both exciting and fun.
There are many different animal species appropriate for the classroom setting with some of the most common being guinea pigs, bearded dragons, fish, snakes, rats, hermit crabs, and rabbits. Decision-making factors in selecting a pet may include a teacher’s specific style and personal preference, age of the children in the class, potential allergies to specific animals on the part of the students, estimated expenses such as veterinary care or maintenance costs, and logistical considerations like vacation and weekend care.
Getting your students involved in the selection process will foster a sense of ownership, even before the pet comes in the door. A great way to begin the selection process is to divide your class into student teams and assign each small team an animal or type of animal to research. The team will be responsible for compiling information about their assigned animal including place of origin, habitat, size, care plan, training information, and more. This project can advance valuable learning skills and help contribute to a pool of information that the class can then base their decision on.
Another great idea during the prior-to-arrival stage is to invite a guest speaker to the class. A local veterinarian, animal rescue worker, or zoo keeper, could talk about animal care in general. The guest speaker can help jump start the conversation about proper care, health concerns, the importance of treating nature and animals with respect, and allow students to ask any questions they might have.
After selecting a pet, it is best to prepare your students for the arrival and introduction of their new companion in a positive and exciting way. Build time into your class schedule to have the students assist in setting up the correct habitat. This includes researching your creature’s natural environment and going about setting up a comfortable and practical home that accommodates your classroom pet’s needs. Another way to incorporate student aid is through hosting handling sessions. Essentially this could be miniature lectures or presentations including hands-on practice on how to properly handle and provide care for the animal. Another suggestion for enlisting students into care taking roles is to research and create a routine of maintaining a clean and safe environment within the classroom. This structure of routine can facilitate responsibility and ensure that all students participate. By setting a realistic pet plan in advance, it can help manage student behaviors and enable a sense of communal responsibility in caring for the animal once it arrives.
The day your pet is introduced into the classroom is an important one. Amongst much excitement and anticipation from your students, your creature may be a bit overwhelmed and fearful. To help ease the transition, give each student a sense of purpose when welcoming the new addition. You can do this by creating specific jobs and having students sign up for tasks. For example, request volunteers for feeding, cleaning, and handling. Each student tasked with a job is responsible for contributing to the overall well-being of the animal. The food monitor’s job is to remember to feed the new pet and to make sure that it is eating properly. These types of jobs can help to evenly distribute the responsibility of caring for a pet while also empowering your students to contribute through easily understandable tasks. As the teacher, it is your role to model how to behave around the pet so any handling of the animal (if applicable) should be limited until they have been able to settle into their new classroom home. A slow acclimation to the noise, movement, and surroundings of a school setting is best to raise a happy and healthy pet, which will be the center for learning lessons to come.
Successful introductions of pets into classrooms offer more than just the concept of a classroom pet. It has been a valuable part of the mix of teaching tools for some time now with a variety of teachers in diverse settings employing it as a means of stoking interest in learning from their students.
Second-grade teacher, Brittany Jobak from Warren Michigan, was able to secure materials through grant funding for a classroom gecko that her students named Leonardo. “From the week I brought Leonardo into the classroom, all of my students have worked together, spending time reading, writing, and learning about geckos. They’ve been able to increase their sense of responsibility around providing care for him and it’s been a wonderful experience watching them learn how to care for another living creature together through classroom teamwork.”
First-grade teacher Rodney Crouse, after reading of other successful cases of pets in the classroom, researched financial support possibilities and decided to bring an aquarium into his classroom environment to aid in the study of living organisms and fragile ecosystems. “In my experience, bringing in dwarf frogs and a bristlenose pleco have developed a classroom atmosphere that is both open and welcoming. My students normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to interact with nature this much and view it as a special treat. I feel as if we’ve created a unique and stimulating learning environment where my kids are able to observe, compare, and contrast our creature’s needs.”
Kristin Shanley, who teaches 18 different science classes a week for ages ranging from pre-k to fifth grade in Northern Minneapolis, sought out grant funding to support two guinea pigs in her classroom. “From the moment I brought in the pets, my students couldn’t take their eyes off of them. They were so excited and ready to participate. Since most of my students have difficult home environments, we see a high number of behavioral issues as a result of their non-school lives. Once these two little creatures came into the classroom, I noticed a world of difference. All of my students wanted to pet, hold, feed, and observe the guinea pigs. It’s been incredible to watch my students learn responsibility and compassion while observing the thriving atmosphere of a safe, warm, and inviting classroom due to these two little pets.”
Besides this and other anecdotal evidence, there is an increasing body of research conducted in recent years on the benefits of classroom pets. These findings have led to the emergence of programs that bring reading dogs into classrooms, after school environments, and hospitals to be partnered with children so that they can practice reading skills in the company of a friend that will not judge them over stumbled words or incorrect pronunciation. Many children receive a needed confidence boost from these types of programs and thus develop both their communication skills and a love for literature all while learning to respect and care for an animal.
From a lesson planning perspective, a classroom pet allows for creative additions to curriculums on a wide variety of subjects including science, history, art, math, and language arts. For example, when it comes to the sciences, your classroom pet can be used as a project where students study the animal, noting its habits and behavioral patterns. They can document what it needs to survive in terms of diet, exercise, environment, and climate, all while observing the effects of its overall environment on its ability to be happy and healthy.
For history, students can conduct research on the background of the classroom pet, or they can interview a parent, grandparent, or relative, on the importance of animals in their lives. For art, students can work on their observational skills by drawing different details of the animal using different media such as paint, markers, pencils, or even modeling clay. For math, pets are a great way to teach measurement and fractions in developing and implementing feeding schedules or tracking expenses. In the language arts, pets can be the source of much inspiration for creative writing. The list of possibilities is nearly endless!
One of the greatest benefits gained through hosting a pet in the classroom is the pet’s ability to break down barriers that enable bullying. Recently garnering attention in school systems throughout North America, more animal-based programs are being introduced to navigate and alleviate the escalating levels of bullying found in an increasingly connected and technologically reliant world. In a society that sees alarming rates of bullying, the shared ownership of a living creature is oftentimes enough commonality to reduce classroom and school-wide tensions and aggressions between students. Through lessons on fairness, compassion, and integrity, children are able to carry the skills applied toward the care of the classroom pet to their relationships with one another. In this way, a pet in a classroom is an invaluable tool to help promote empathy, communication, and the capacity to care for all creatures.
Aside from being a rich source of educational learning, pets in the classroom provide unique opportunities that promote holistic life learning amongst students. With all of the technological advancements available today, children spend more time with electronic devices than ever before and a classroom pet provides the necessary and crucial bond with the natural world that can enhance your students’ health and well-being both in and outside of the classroom.
To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.
Steven King is executive director of The Pet Care Trust, a non-profit charitable foundation. The Trust is dedicated to promoting public understanding regarding the value of and right to enjoy companion animals and to enhance knowledge about pets through research and education. King has worked with non-profit organizations involving pets for more than 30 years.