Pets enrich classroom experience; provide opportunities for pro-social development

May 24, 2017 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

When I was in elementary school, one of the teachers had an incubator with chicken eggs set up in her classroom. The whole school would buzz when the eggs hatched and the adorable, yellow, fuzzy chicks made their debut.

Everyone wanted to be in that class since the students helped monitor and care for the eggs, and then the chicks.

Having pets in the classroom is an experience that continues in some schools today and research shows classroom pets offer a wealth of academic and social benefits for the students who interact with them.

Teachers with classroom pets often use them to help illustrate scientific concepts, such as habitats, ecosystems, environmental conservation, climate, life cycles, genetics, reproduction, adaptations and animal behavior, according to the 2015 “Pets in the Classroom Study” released by the American Humane Association.

But there is a pro-social benefit to having animals in the classroom as well.

“A class pet can teach children important values like compassion, empathy, respect, and responsibility for other living things, as well as give them much-needed leadership skills and stress relief,” according to the American Humane Association report.

Brian Henry, a Broadalbin-Perth High School biology teacher, currently has two bearded dragons and two snakes in three 55-gallon tanks in his classroom. His students help with a number of tasks related to caring for the animals: cleaning their tanks, bathing them, feeding them, ensuring they have water and light, monitoring their health and providing social interaction. The bearded dragons are particularly social and enjoy being held, he said.

While his pets sometimes help illustrate academic lessons, Mr. Henry sees their primary function in the classroom as teaching his students responsibility. Many of his students come into his classroom during their free periods or after school to care for or interact with the animals.
“Pet ownership teaches kids time management skills,” said Mr. Henry, who has taught 17 years for the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District, which spans portions of Fulton, Montgomery and Saratoga counties in New York. “You have to find time out of your day to care for the animals.”

This will translate later in life to responsibilities such as getting to a job on time, he said.

Erik Hanson, a Cooperstown Elementary School fifth-grade teacher, annually raises rainbow trout in a 50-gallon tank in his Otsego County classroom to help illustrate science-related topics, such as food webs and the life cycle. They start the project with about 100 trout eggs near the beginning of the school year and release the surviving 28-35 surviving 2- to 4-inch trout at the end of the school year.

In the wild, only about 1 percent of the eggs laid will make it to adulthood, but his classroom yields a much higher percentage – which provides an opportunity to incorporate some math into the trout project, he said.

The academic benefits extend beyond the science curriculum in a variety of ways, according to Pet Care Trust’s Pets in the Classroom program, an educational grant program that provides financial support to teachers to purchase and maintain small animals in the classroom.

The Pets in the Classroom website lists examples such as:

  • Math: “How much does a hamster weigh?”
  • Geography: “What part of the world do ferrets come from?”
  • English language arts: “What words would we use to describe a goldfish?”

Students can even create presentations about their classroom pets, developing their research and communication skills.

Like Broadalbin-Perth’s Mr. Henry, Mr. Hanson recognizes the value of having his students help care for the fish. His students help monitor the fish tank water temperature and feed the fish.

“It gives them another responsibility in the classroom,” said Mr. Hanson, who has taught at Cooperstown for eight years.

His students said they enjoyed having the fish in the classroom, that they liked watching them.

Classroom pets, particularly fish, can bring a sense of calm and relaxation to students, according to the American Humane Association report. Several teachers stated that they often used the calming effects of their classroom pets to specifically address the needs of their students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, behavioral challenges and/or learning differences, the report states.

In July, my family will be expanding with the addition of a new member: a cute, fuzzy, wiggly ball of joy, a puppy.

I’m already prepping my kids that with all that joy, comes a lot of responsibility. Feeding it, making sure it has water and that it is getting the proper amount of exercise and timely visits to the veterinarian.

Families have a great opportunity to involve children in the care of their family pet, instilling multitude of lessons that will help them in various aspects of their life.

For families considering adopting a pet, children can do some of the research to prepare for their new pet. There is a wealth of information on the internet related to animal care, Mr. Henry said. Having a child conduct that research helps building their problem-solving and research skills, he said.

They also then have to communicate about what they learned.

“Don’t be afraid to give responsibility to your kids,” Mr. Henry said.

How do pets enrich the classroom?

  • Even kids with no exposure to animals or nature in their home environment can see, feel, touch and make connections to the wide world of animals.
  • Observing and caring for an animal instills a sense of responsibility and respect for life.
  • A pet brings increased sensitivity and awareness of the feelings and needs of others—both animals and humans.
  • Kids learn that all living things need more than just food and water for survival.
  • Students will see directly how their behavior and actions affect others.
  • Studies show that the presence of animals tends to lessen tension in the classroom.

Source: Pet Care Trust’s Pets in the Classroom Grant Program

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her second- and fourth-grade sons and is looking forward to the arrival of their new puppy on July 1.  

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