Class Pets Benefit Children and Provide Unique Learning Opportunities
Children and adults alike benefit from having pets in their lives. For example, a study found that 74% of American pet owners recorded improved mental health due to their animals.
Today, animals offer comfort and support people in hospitals, workplaces, retirement homes, and schools. Increasingly, school communities are welcoming pets into the classroom. In the US, it is estimated that about 20% of classrooms have pets.
Australia has a high rate of animal ownership, with over 25 million pets across the country. Research conducted by the Pet Industry Association Australia indicates that more Australians share their homes with pets than with kids. It’s not surprising that teachers and students recognise the value of having one in class.
Popular class pets include fish, birds, guinea pigs, turtles, and insects such as giant burrowing cockroaches and silkworms.
Why Have A Class Pet?
Although introducing animals into a learning environment necessitates thorough planning, consistent care, and incurs costs, there are many advantages in doing so. Here are the main ones:
Pet care teaches responsibility, turn-taking, respect, empathy, and nurturing skills:
Even small children can learn to care for living creatures with help from adults and under supervision. Encourage students to help with age-appropriate tasks, and model good pet care habits. This is also a chance to cover the topic of how to recognise and prevent animal cruelty or abuse.
Every learner makes mistakes. If a student forgets feeding duty, remind them that their friend is counting on them. Praise them when they prove themselves responsible by caring for animals correctly without being reminded.
By letting pupils take turns caring for pets, young kids learn turn taking and nurturing skills. They also learn to be comfortable around animals and interact with them. This is particularly important for children who live in small homes without space for animals.
Improves self-esteem, social and emotional skills, relationships, and self-regulation
Research shows that helping to care for pets increases self-esteem. Children who regularly play with pets have higher levels of self-esteem than those who don’t. Being around animals develops strong social and emotional skills which sets them up for success in the school environment.
This is particularly true for students with disabilities like autism. A large-scale study across 41 classrooms in 15 Australian schools demonstrated that 20- minute animal interactions resulted in improved social functioning and school attendance for learners on the spectrum.
Kids can even develop strong relationships with non-responsive animals, such as turtles and fish. Encouraging students to talk to class pets relieves stress and boosts motivation to study. Many are excited about work that is linked to the class pet. They love to show resident animals their work or read aloud to them.
A 2017 global study of pets in classrooms published in the American Educational Research Association Open (AERA Open) Journal concluded that when animals are part of classrooms, kids are more likely to obey instructions, focus on tasks, ask appropriate questions, and interact more with teachers. Students pay more attention, sit still, and are less disruptive.
They can also help children manage complex emotions, come to terms with death, and learn how their actions affect others.
Learning Opportunities With Pets
Here are some creative ways to link your furry, feathery, or scaly friend to specific learning outcomes and objectives within the curriculum:
- Science – have your students complete projects on your pet’s life-cycle, natural environment or habitat, eating habits and reproduction system. Does it have any predators? Observe its sleeping and eating habits, and how the animal changes over time. What are the do’s and don’ts you must adhere to when caring for this type of animal?
- Keep a daily observation journal, taking careful note of the pet’s behaviour and activities.
- English – what words would you use to describe the class pet and why?
- English – write diary entries from the perspective of your class pet. What are their impressions of the human world?
- Art – Draw realistic pictures of your class pet, using paints, charcoal, or any other materials you wish. You can also create sculptures using clay.
- Maths: As part of the planning before introducing the pet to your classroom, get your students to calculate the cost of looking after the pet over its expected lifetime. Include the cost of regular visits. Measure the length and weight of pets periodically.
- Presentation: What are the pros and cons of caring for the animal? What have you learnt as a result?
- Debate: Are you for or against class pets? Explain your views.
- Writing composition: What could you do to make your pet more comfortable? Can you think of anything it needs? What activities/choices do you think would make the animal happy?
- Civic studies: Hold a vote on the pet’s name. This shows young children how the election system works.
- Sustainability/ecology: How does caring for your pet teach you about the ecosystem and sustainability? Are there sustainable ways to care for your pet?
Not Keen On Classroom Pets? Consider Other Options
Although caring for pets benefits both students and staff, there are many issues you must consider before bringing a pet to class. Firstly, it’s important to consider the following:
Can the school community adequately care for a pet? Does doing so fulfil particular learning objectives? Will caring for a pet suit the class in question?
If you decide that having an animal in class full-time doesn’t suit your particular teaching and learning situation, there are other opportunities for students to interact with animals in school settings:
- Explore the school grounds for students and collect bugs and other animals for students to observe for a while and then release back into the school grounds.
- Organise excursions to zoos, conservation parks and reptile or animal farms. Organise incursions where animal handlers talk about the animals in their care.
- Ask students to bring in appropriately docile pets from home to present to the class.
- Have the class vote on what pets they would most enjoy learning more about and ask the local vet to give a series of talks to the class on these animals.
- Participate in a regular reading session with dogs. Local libraries often host them. Alternatively, you can arrange to have dogs brought in for a few hours. Such programs build confidence in reluctant readers and are very popular!
- Volunteer with students to care for animals at local pet shelters. Reflect on what you learn and how you can link it to the curriculum.
- Create bird feeders.
Read on for Part 2 of this article (soon to be published) “Prepare and Plan for your Class Pet” for more details about what to consider when getting a class pet.
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