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Critters in the classroom

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Typically, discussions of classroom pets bring on either warm, nurturing stories or ones like these—disasters and hassles that bring nothing positive to early care and education classrooms.
From ant colonies and earthworm farms to domestic pets and wild critters living in zoos or filmed for nature specials, animals fascinate children. And for generations, teachers have tried to maximize children’s learning potential by bringing animals into the classroom.
Teachers know that most children are eager to observe, feed, touch, and care for animals. Teachers also understand that some children are fearful and want to observe from a respectful distance or they’re just disinterested. And, thinking that any animal is better than none, some teachers are willing to risk disaster.
But there is a better way. It involves specific learning objectives, careful planning, and respect for the diverse interests of everyone involved—children, teachers, administrators, parents, and custodians. Such a plan can make having critters in the classroom a positive and powerful experience.
Remember, classroom pets are not just another piece of equipment. Pet care and animal study contribute to broad educational goals including curiosity, compassion, and respect. Further, animal study encourages a lifelong interest in life science and ecological sensitivity.
In early childhood classrooms, pets contribute to a child’s knowledge of the natural world. Typically children learn by
observing and describing the differences between plants and animals;
providing the basics of animal care by supplying suitable habitats, food, water, and other needs; and
observing animal life cycles—birth, growth, and death.
Ideally, bringing the natural animal world into the classroom is a deliberate, planned decision. When you model care and respect for animals, children will naturally follow your lead. Conversations with children about the habitat and diet of particular animals invite opportunities to explore the similarities and differences among living things.

Get everyone involved
Before getting a classroom pet, make sure you are eager, knowledgeable, and prepared. Nothing will dampen children’ enthusiasm faster that a teacher’s boredom or fear of an animal pet. Afraid of reptiles? Consider a gerbil or rabbit. Don’t want to touch animals? Consider an aquarium with fish or newts. Clarify your own limitations before you make a commitment.
Certainly you don’t need to know everything about the animal you choose—learning with children is powerful. But don’t make your classroom an experiment in failed animal care because you agreed to have a pet no one can care for adequately.
As you consider pet options, review program rules. Make sure your program encourages classroom pets and has a plan in place for dealing with possible child injuries and parent concerns.
Review licensing and health regulations in your area. Some regulations, for example, forbid programs to keep turtles because they often carry salmonella. Some regional regulatory offices require a veterinarian’s certification of good health for classroom animals; some animals require vaccinations.
Resist trying to make an exotic animal into a pet. Domestication is not possible, and the potential for disaster too great.
After you have limited the critter options, bring the issue to the group. Spend some time exploring the children’s interests, the types of pets they may have at home, and the kinds of animals they would like to care for. Use the following questions to guide your conversations with children.
Where will the pet live?
What does the pet need?
How much will the pet cost?
Where will we buy the pet?
Where will we get the money for the pet, its food, and supplies?
Who will take care of the pet?
What will we do if the pet gets sick or injured?
What problems will there be with this pet?
Who will take care of the pet on the weekends and during vacations?
These questions help children understand their responsibility for another living creature—one that is totally dependent on the group for its care.
Then, with the group, develop a plan. It would include budgeting, preparing the environment for the critter, and building the animal’s habitat. The plan would suggest ways to introduce the animal to the group. And it would contain charts for use in caregiving responsibilities like feeding, cage cleaning, and handling.

Housing pets
Housing for a classroom pet will depend upon the animal’s needs and natural environment. For all animals, however, habitats must be safe and clean, and provide adequate space for natural movement. Most animals will also require regular (often daily) food and water.
Some classroom critters—earthworms and insects, for example—are likely to be day visitors. Provide simple, temporary housing like a clean plastic jar. Stretch a piece of nylon hosiery over the mouth of the jar and hold it in place with a rubber band. Or cut “windows” out of the sides of a milk carton, and place the whole carton in a nylon bag. Put a wet cotton ball into the container to provide moisture. Encourage children to make and record their observations, and release the animal at the end of the day.
Habitats for permanent pets must be sturdy and appropriate to the animal. Sometimes you will be able to find used cages and aquariums at tag sales and thrift stores. But remember, if the pet is a long-term investment, its housing should be too. Scrimping on housing and bedding could risk pet health and injury as well as increase the time it takes you to clean and maintain the habitat.
All animals produce wastes that must be removed regularly. Water habitats for fish require air circulation and filtration systems that aerate the water and clear wastes. Daily maintenance will be limited to feeding and a check that all systems are working properly. Land animals, on the other hand, depend on people to clean their habitats as well as provide food, water, and other animal-specific needs.
For habitat and feeding specifics, consult pet care manuals available in libraries, bookstores, and pet stores.

Helping children care for pets
Help children handle classroom pets appropriately. Toddlers and young preschoolers will need to learn the meaning of words like gently, and pet softly. Teach older children how to read animal cues for hunger, tiredness, and fear.
Most animals, and all mammals, have cyclic sleep, alert, and quiet times that children can learn to respect. Teach children to leave animals alone when they are eating; even the tamest animals can be aggressive if they fear their food will be taken away.
As you and the children become more familiar with your classroom pet, continue exploring issues like pet toys, handling, habitat features, and food treats.
Vacations and weekends present challenges. Many animals require such minimal care that they can be left in the classroom over a two-day weekend. No animal can be left alone for a longer period.
Going home with a child is too often risky. Classroom pets can be injured or killed because of rough handling, inattentive care, and jealous or undisciplined house pets. Most of the time, you will be the pet’s primary caregiver—even over vacations. If the pet goes home with a child, be certain the adults in the household are eager and committed to its care.

Safety and health
Make sure you and children wash hands thoroughly before and after handling pets or anything in their habitats. Thorough hand washing is essential.
Make a plan for cleaning the habitats of land animals. Experienced children can be taught to take responsibility for this aspect of pet care. In groups of younger children you will need to include cleaning in your daily routine. Talk with the children about what you are doing and why you are taking such care. Place wastes, including old bedding, food, and feces, in a plastic bag and knot it tightly. Place the bag in an outdoor garbage can.
Some animals—like cats, rabbits and small rodents—and some wood-chip bedding cause allergic reactions. Review children’s health records and your own resistance to animal allergens. For people who have allergic reactions, no amount of contact is safe. The usual cause of the allergy is dander (dried skin particles) that’s in the air, not just on the animal. Skin and respiratory reactions are caused not by touching the animal but rather by breathing contaminated air.
Some animals bite, scratch, or peck when handled—especially by inexperienced handlers. Have a plan in place for any injuries. Make sure to share your medical report forms with an injured child’s parents immediately.
Children and adults whose immune systems are suppressed are at much greater risk for infections. People with suppressed immune systems often include those who have had an organ transplant, are HIV/AIDS positive, and are being treated for leukemia, other cancers, asthma, allergies, skin rashes, or lupus. If anyone in your program has a suppressed immune system, get specific medical approval before choosing a classroom pet.