What are you views on having a classroom pet?

7th October, 2010 - Posted by Sammie Gann - No Comments

At Jump Start Preschool, three and four year olds are getting early exposure to freshwater fish and guinea pigs on a daily basis. Photo courtesy of Ted Jacob

     I was out observing a Kindergarten science lesson in a local school last week that was surrounded by classroom pets.  Among them included, “Gigantor the turtle” and “Rocky the fat tailed gecko”.  I asked a young kindergartner about the numerous class pets and he explained to me that it was a huge honor to be in charge of turning on their heat lamps and cleaning their aquariums daily.  “They eat a lot”, he replied along with the comment, “Aren’t they cool?”  I left that classroom remembering how many classroom pets I had when I taught third through fifth graders and the enormous honor it was to be the pet helper for the week and the responsibility that they learned by having that experience at school.

I came across an article featuring elementary students in Canada and had to share this with you….

In Grade 3, Shelley Leach tossed our teacher’s sweater into the guinea pig cage. Among school staff, the incident stirred up more speculation about “whodunnit” than who shot J.R. Ewing, but it was a short-lived cliffhanger as Shelley soon confessed and Mrs. Russo was forced to rethink her pet policy.

Beyond teaching children lessons about life and responsibility — and providing a cautionary tale about guinea pigs’ penchant for soft bedding — classroom pets can enhance the curriculum, provide lessons in empathy, and help some children transition to school, proponents say.

Caring for a classroom pet is a rite of passage that’s still going strong in Calgary, where many schools use animals to enhance the education experience. The Calgary Board of Education’s documentation about animals in schools states, “The use of live animals in schools is recognized as a highly motivational avenue for a variety of significant learning experiences.”

Teachers can bring in animals if no students or staff are allergic to them, and provided there is a connection between the creature and the curriculum.

Greg Neil teaches Grade 5 at the Calgary Science School, where he shares a room with a bearded dragon named Draco. The sedate reptile is a hit among his students, who take turns caring for him and feeding him fruit, vegetables, crickets and meal worms.

“Reptiles are great because they are easy to care for and there are very few allergy or health concerns associated with them,” says Neil.

What’s more, most children have limited exposure to reptiles. “It’s a chance to learn about a different species,” he says.

The only negative Neil relates is that Draco, like his Harry Potter namesake, can be a class distraction (though his novelty wears off as the year progresses).

At Jump Start Preschool in Millrise, three-and four-year-olds are getting early exposure to freshwater fish and guinea pigs on a daily basis, and have the opportunity to watch chicks hatch and see caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies at other times of the year.

Preschool owner Marla McKay says there are many benefits to introducing young children to animals in a classroom setting. For starters, they help first-time students feel comfortable outside the home. Kids learn about responsibility and pet nourishment by feeding Baxter and Scotty, the two guinea pigs. They also learn empathy by caring for another living creature whose life depends on their kindness.

The aquarium, next to the room’s reading corner, has a soothing, therapeutic effect on the preschoolers, says McKay.

“I think animals in general are a very mesmerizing thing to children,” she says.

Parents love Jump Start’s pet program.

“I think it’s a great learning experience,” says Michelle Prather, whose twin three-year-old girls, Kya and Suraya, attend the preschool.

“They come home talking about them; that they held the guinea pigs,” says Prather, adding that she and her husband both have animal allergies, so they can’t have pets in their home.

McKay admits the guinea pigs can be distracting at times, with her students clamouring to hold them. This is just one downside of pets in the classroom that irritates parenting educator Gail Bell. She says animals can be yet another diversion keeping children from learning their ABCs. She’d prefer teachers “plan more for that really exciting math lesson” than spend their valuable time mucking out the hamster cage.

“What, truly, is the purpose of a pet in the classroom?” asks Bell, cofounder of Calgary-based Parenting Power.

As a former teacher and school principal, Bell wonders if maintaining a classroom pet is one more unnecessary item on teachers’ never-ending to-do lists, which now contain subjects — such as teaching values — that used to be tackled in the home.

“Isn’t that, yet again, a family thing? Many people get a huge benefit from having animals — but I think that’s a family decision,” she says.

Bell also worries about allergies among students. She recounts a story about a client whose son was exposed to a guinea pig in class — even though he was allergic to the small rodents and his teacher knew.

Perhaps a compromise for teachers is to consider the Calgary Humane Society’s school-based Humane Education program. A society representative brings in a number of different animals and talks about issues from animal cruelty prevention to responsible pet ownership.

Patricia Cameron, executive director of the Calgary Humane Society, believes pets can “reach into a child’s heart and inspire empathy,” but understands that not every family can have a pet, and not every teacher wants that full-time responsibility in the classroom. The Humane Education program offers a solution that can reap rewards.

“Animals significantly improve community health,” Cameron says.

Lisa Kadane, Postmedia News · Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010

Do you have a classroom pet? Share your experiences and thoughts about keeping living organisms in your classroom.  What are the pros and cons?

Posted on: October 7, 2010

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