By Judy Sutton Taylor
When their beloved classroom gerbil Spikey passed away, Rogers Park Montessori pre-school coordinator Kristen Mark was struck by how articulate the 3- to 6-year-old students in her class were in expressing their feelings about the loss.
The children made individual decisions about how they wanted to conduct a memorial ceremony, she recalls. “Some carried flowers, and some wanted to make remarks outside [where he was buried],” Mark says. “Many children chose to write a card. One said she could see Spikey on his gerbil wheel in the sky, and sure enough once she made that statement other [kids] could see him up there, too.”
While it was a sad day for her class, Mark believes it was also an important one. “One death can often bring up memories of another death they may have experienced in their lives,” she says. “For others, it can be the first time they have experienced this kind of loss so they learn that dying is a part of life.” It’s just one of the valuable lessons that comes from having an animal as part of the classroom community, she notes, adding that having the children take an active role in the daily caring of the animals by feeding them and cleaning their living areas provides ongoing learning opportunities.
While there can be bountiful rewards for kids, obvious concerns exist for the well-being of the animals, who may be unwittingly subjected to stress brought on by school settings that are vastly different than the habitats they require. “At issue is really which animals are most appropriate for a classroom setting,” says Sheryl L. Pipe, Ph.D., senior director of the ASPCA’s Humane Education Department. “Teachers should take into consideration both the animal and the students. Animals that are very sensitive to noise, such as birds, rabbits, and chinchillas, aren’t good choices for a school environment. Neither are nocturnal animals like hamsters, mice, and rats. Reptiles present the concern of introducing salmonella bacteria into the classroom.
“Guinea pigs are usually a good choice as they enjoy being held and rarely bite—they are also a bit larger than other common rodent pets making them less likely to get lost or hurt.” she explains. “Fish can also be a good choice,” she adds, but like guinea pigs, “[Only] if their transport over weekends and holidays can be addressed adequately.” Gerbils like the one in Mark’s classroom are often recommended for schools because they’re sociable, clean, and active during both day and night.
Classrooms pets are often pet store purchases, most likely because many people—including teachers and parents—don’t realize animals like rodents are available at animal shelters. But adopting from a shelter can add another component to the learning experience for students. “Children learn both from what we say and what we do,” Pipe says, noting that an example of humane behavior toward animals can have a lasting impact on a child.
According to Pipe, having animals in a classroom can be a win-win situation if it’s done with a lot of advance research, planning, and care, though ensuring a humane life for the animal doesn’t end with making a good match. “If the classroom pet is a truly integrated member of the classroom who is taken care of appropriately, it can be a humane choice.” Still, she notes that—as with deciding to add an animal companion to your family at home—this is not a decision to be taken lightly because of the long-term care and commitment that’s needed. Consideration of ongoing expenses should be addressed, as should the possibility that students’ attention may wane after the initial honeymoon period with a pet, or when the classroom focus shifts to something new. And teachers also have to prepared, as Mark was, to talk and deal with student reactions to serious topics like death if necessary.
“Teachers need to think about several issues—ensuring consistent, conscientious, and compassionate care, including food, temperature, veterinary care; (adequate) space and shelter; and company for social animals,” Pipe explains. “They also have to ensure the animals want the type of attention they will get from the students and plan of care for school breaks and plan of evacuation in an emergency.”
Pipe says that there are other ways to accomplish the learning objectives achieved by having an animal in the classroom if the fit isn’t right, including taking field trips, bringing in guest visitors, having smaller children create pretend animals to care for as an ongoing project, and using webcams, books, and movies. One good resource is the publication KIND (Kids in Nature’s Defense) News, a classroom paper put out by the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education for kids in grades K-6 that stresses concepts like respect, responsibility, and compassion.
Mark’s goal is to raise children who grow up to respect and care for the living things around them. “We really want to nurture the child as a spiritual, compassionate human being,” she says. “Having different kinds of living things in our community is done as a conscious effort to design a little social setting that cultivates the child’s sense of independence, respect, love, and passion. They come to value all life.”
National Association for Humane and Environmental Education