A few days ago, our family lost our beloved 17-year-old mini poodle, Muffy. Saddled with a girl’s name, Muffy lived a pretty healthy life. Though he endured infirmities as a senior, we accommodated him by finding snuggly blankets, adjusting his water bowl to a comfortable height, and carrying him in and out.
In his younger days, I brought Muffy to school and the students made him an instant celebrity. He’d never had so many stories read to him in one day. The students showed empathy and kindness, something we now have entire curricula to teach.
I admire teachers who keep pets in the classroom because they seem to have a special insight into children. Their focus tends to be less about teaching children responsibility and more about what each of us learns from animals. I know educators who bring their dogs to school and I’ve seen how stroking them helps evoke a kind of mellow grace in students. Especially in older students.
Other colleagues of mine have created ingenious roles for animals in schools. One kept an aquarium with a student desk and chair parked in front of it. She’d read that watching fish could help children self-regulate, and she had a couple of students in mind. The rest of the class wanted to use the aquarium for quiet thinking, too. Soon she had to post a sign-up sheet.
Another teacher kept a rabbit hopping around freely. You might think that would distract first graders, but not at all. The children easily integrated the rabbit into their routines and learned to step carefully around him. The rabbit used a litter box, too.
In one urban school, a teacher kept two guinea pigs in a huge cage on legs. She made it into a writing center. Children drew their chairs around all four sides, some propping up their feet on its edge. The guinea pigs went on with their lives as students watched them and worked on writing projects. Each child who wanted to hold one knew the procedure for letting out the guinea pigs, always putting the animal’s needs first.
Empathy, kindness, care, grace, sharing, patience–that’s a short list of what students learn from school pets. How lucky the world is when children carry those forward.