By Molly Breen
If you have ever considered having a classroom pet, but weren’t sure if the benefits would outweigh the added responsibilities, the research is in! A study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that attachment with companion animals in early life through adolescence leads to better self-esteem, increased perspective-taking ability, and even increased cognitive abilities (especially regarding language development), among other social and emotional health and well-being benefits.
You might be asking, All of this from a little furry (or scaly, or feathery) classroom friend? It’s true. Not only are there cascading developmental benefits of classroom pets, but these little critters can also provide curricular support (How much does our leopard gecko weigh? How long is it? What is its natural habitat?) and an increased sense of responsibility, care, and compassion among your students. And . . . classroom pets are fun!
Teaching kids about empathy, compassion, sensitivity, and perspective taking rarely takes root in theoretical conversations. Of course, books are always a favorite entry point for taking on social and emotional topics, but there is no substitute for direct experiences. For example, if I were to share a lesson on how to take turns with my preschool class and I only talked at them about what it means to take turns, the importance of turn-taking, how to do it, when to do it, and so on, how many would embody the behavior down the road? Few to none. If I were to do a puppet play and act out a conflict scenario with a turn-taking resolution during my meeting time instead, the concept might take root in some of the children. They might even try it in real life! But the very best path to embodied understanding of the concept is through experiencing it directly. The child who wants the toy, grabs the toy, cries out, and then works toward a resolution of taking turns and (hopefully) peaceful play and repeats the experience many times? Those experiences are downloaded into the child’s neurobiology in a completely different way.
Classroom pets are the social and emotional experience—no lesson plan needed. They help children experience the joy of connecting with a little creature, of attuning to the state of another (furry, scaly, feathered) being. Their social and emotional learning becomes a social and emotional experience: the very best kind of learning.
While an actual, alive classroom pet would be the very best option for developing a group plan about care for a pet, some classes have been known to keep a classroom “pet” of the stuffed variety. Depending on your environment and the resources available to you, you could adapt the following suggestions to best suit your needs:
Choose together. Think about bringing in a classroom pet in the way that you might develop any other learning project for your class. Lay the groundwork with your students (and probably with parents and administration too) about the idea and intention, and then start collecting ideas about what type of pet might be right for your classroom.
Choose humanely. Make sure that as you consider your options, you have the materials, space, and capacity to care for a classroom pet (including possible vet visits). Think through how you can provide a healthful, nurturing, and appropriate environment for whichever animal you may choose to bring into your school. (Remember, some little critters are really social and need touch and time interacting with people every day, even on the weekend.)
If you can’t bring a pet into your classroom for the long-term, consider inviting pets and their owners to visit from time to time or consider getting a classroom stuffy that gets the same kind of loving care and a journal to travel to and from kids’ homes on weekends.
Develop a care plan with your class. This can include daily responsibilities like feeding and cleaning and a care calendar for things like school breaks and weekends. Developing a care plan helps your students know that these creatures need and deserve nurturing attention to stay alive and well. Involving them in this responsibility of daily care routines will increase their capacity for compassion. And don’t forget about picking a name! Renaming pets with new groups of students is appropriate, too, to help them feel connected and responsible for the animal.
Once you have your classroom pet, start a classroom journal to chart growth, eating habits, sleep patterns, and other characteristics. Ask the children what they notice and record their responses. Take photos and let the children draw and write in the journal too! These are excellent language and literacy activities that may inspire even the most reluctant children to speak up and share what they see! If children take the classroom pet home on the weekends or over breaks, send the journal along for keeping track of the experience.
Extend learning by asking open-ended questions and posting them near the animal’s habitat. For example: What do you think Pixie is thinking about right now? This is a playful question, but one that encourages perspective-taking. Maybe Pixie is feeling lonely, maybe she wants to eat a cricket (Pixie is our leopard gecko!), or maybe she is wondering what we are working on at the tinker table!
Classroom pets are an additional responsibility, it’s true. They require attention, planning, care, and—in some cases—real nurturing. But they are a completely integrative way for children to experience a range of emotional learning and human development. And when I think of the way our little leopard gecko has captured the hearts of several of my students, or the way that children would speak to our bearded dragon (Beardie) as if having a serve-and-return conversation, I know that caring for these critters is a lived and embodied experience of social and emotional learning.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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