In Part One, we looked at the idea that kids should learn about ecosystems and illustrated what that might look like in the classroom. The example used was tiny, short-lived brine shrimp as their lifecycle comes close to matching children’s attention span. While these little swimmers are interesting for children, bigger animals are much more engaging. They are also much more challenging to administer. Let’s look at the options.
NOTE: I have excluded dogs and cats from consideration as most children have ample opportunities to interact with them. I have also excluded exotic animals, such as parrots, as the ethical considerations of keeping such animals needs to be carefully considered.
To maximize their engagement, kids should be able to handle and ideally cuddle with, the animals that we bring into the school environment. This requirement severely limits which animals are appropriate. Even within this narrow range, there are undesirable traits. Snakes, for example, are easy for kids to handle but, as carnivores, feeding them may create questions such as will children be allowed to observe feeding or will this be done during non-class time. Turtles can certainly be picked up, but they may not be ideal in that they often try to run away, they are generally taken from nature rather than being bred in captivity, and on rare occasions, can be contaminated with salmonella. Tortoises don’t have this problem but are still not all that engaging, their slow movement may, however, can be perfect for certain children who find them calming.
I think you can see where this discussion is headed. Two main species have been very successful in ECE programs, rodents and chickens. In the rodent family, rats and guinea pigs are the best choices as mice and hamsters are less robust and cannot be handled as much. Although not in the rodent family, rabbits can also be very successful, especially does as they are calmer than bucks. The larger, heavy bodied hens are a great choice. Roosters for obvious reasons should be avoided. Whatever you choose, the animals should be obtained as young as possible and handled frequently. If the outdoor yard is well fenced, most of the animals in this recommended group can be allowed to roam freely, which is ideal from a learning perspective. Now that we’ve narrowed the field to those animals that have the best chance for successful integration into the school environment let’s consider the more challenging issue, livestock management.
Let’s face it; having animals at school can be a hassle. Although this added work is a pain, all of the challenges are really where the most learning for the children can be found, so the more that children are engaged in the safety, feeding, and clean-up the better. Let’s take these issues one at a time.
A frequent cause of school pet mortality is improper feeding. Generally, death is caused by overfeeding, but it can also be from contamination or even neglect. Teaching children proper diet and food presentation is a great way to build emotional intelligence.
Animal safety comes in two primary forms. The first is proper handling. Kids instinctually tend to be very gentle when first handling animals. Indeed, the most frequent problem comes from the children not being able to secure the animal, which results in escapes and possible injury. Teacher’s need to show proper handling techniques and as soon as possible, to turn this instruction over to the children so that this becomes a social norm amongst the children and empowers them to be vigilant guardians of the animal’s care.
Proper enclosures are another key to animal safety. It should be noted that it is pretty easy to contain the animals that are recommended and for animals in kept indoors, a standard cage is all that is required. Outside enclosures are a whole other issue in that the goal is not just to contain the animals as much as it is to keep other animals out. While there are many sources for outside cages, these are generally not explicitly designed for the school environment. For example, they do not consider that the caretakers will be children, so the dimensions are not ideal, and access-egress is not well thought out. We hope to address this need with suggested designs for schools in the near future.
The process of maintenance and cleaning up can provide children with very impactful lessons. All of the waste product such as cage litter, excess food, and excrement can be combined with lunch scraps and garden waste and put into compost. Learning how to handle these materials correctly and how to aerate the compost is a core ecosystem lesson. Indeed, it may be the most compelling justification for having animals in the classroom.
In Part Three, we will look at how Vygotsky’s notion of instructional scaffolding can be the basis of seeing the whole school environment as a sustainable planet-friendly environment.