"I'll smash it" said the four-year-old boy as his fist hit the floor. This angry outburst was in response to being shown a bearded dragon lizard during a 'Pet Safari' visit to his kindergarten.
My approach to kids and pets is one of 'look, touch and learn' with a large helping of supervision and guidance. Although this young man's response is not something I encounter often, well intentioned enthusiasm, excitement and simple curiosity is just as likely to cause harm to animals in schools and other learning centres when unchecked.
The benefits of classroom pets to children
There are certainly many benefits to children in having pets around them, such as responsibility, empathy, a connection to nature and respect for living things.
Pets in the classroom bring many learning opportunities across the curriculum from investigating where the pets come from to story writing, learning about habitats and ecosystems and even maths.
The problems for the classroom pets
The benefits for children from a classroom pet are only real when guided by responsible and informed adults. A badly cared for classroom pet has no benefit at all, least of all to the animal and only teaches children that animals have very little value.
With the exception of a few very good examples, most of the pets I see in classrooms are sadly lacking in dedicated care or appropriate housing and are not protected from the constant disturbance and noise from children.
Weekend and holiday care is farmed out to families who have no experience or proper instruction on the care of the animal, which is often treated as 'practice' for a future pet of their own. Stories of 'it escaped' or 'my little sister squashed it' are all too common, disturbingly related as something to laugh about by some teachers.
The right way
Sian Williams, a primary school teacher in west Auckland feels that it is very beneficial to have a class pet. As a former veterinary nurse she is well informed on the care of animals and chose fish for her classroom. Her students have been involved from the start, learning about the appropriate environment for the fish and work together on a roster system to feed and maintain the aquarium, all under the watchful eye of Ms Williams. The students understand why they shouldn't tap on the glass, and wouldn't dream of dropping anything in the aquarium. This is in stark contrast to another example I encountered where heavy duty strapping and a padlock appeared to be the solution to keeping foreign items out of the aquarium.
I am a big supporter of bringing animals and children together, however this must be in a considered and planned way, not a haphazard approach at the inevitable cost to the animal. Realistically, the classroom environment is not a suitable home for most animals, though it can be done with the following considerations in mind:
• An individual teacher must have overall responsibility for the care of the pet and have the knowledge to do so.
• Involve the children in the selection of the pet and the setting up of its environment.
• Suitable housing must be provided, allowing the animal to withdraw from the attention of children and enjoy some 'quiet time'.
• Rules on how to behave around the classroom pet and how and when to interact with it must be clearly explained along with the reasons why.
• Holiday care should be organized prior to obtaining the animal, and by a responsible adult provided with detailed care and handling instructions.
• Veterinary care must be available and the means to pay for this.
If all this sounds too difficult, there are alternatives to classroom pets. The much under-rated nature table can provide some amazing learning opportunities around animals with items such as bird nests and cicada skins providing a starting point for further investigation. The 'capture and release' approach works for temporary classroom residents such as insects that can be observed for a short period and then returned to where they were found.
Excursions to zoos, farm parks and even the local pet store are a good option for animal interaction, as well as teachers and parents bringing their own pets for a school visit.
Teachers play an important role in shaping the minds of impressionable children, not least of all in their attitude towards other living things. Kindness and respect towards animals builds good character in children and empathy for others. As the reverse is also true, it is vitally important that pets in the classroom are managed with the care they deserve.