Critters in the classroom
• • • • •
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
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
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,
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
For habitat and feeding specifics,
consult pet care manuals available in libraries, bookstores, and pet stores.
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
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.