Teaching children kindness—through animals
When Ms. Sanders walks into her classroom one morning, she discovers that the class hamster has escaped—again.
“Oh, no,” she thinks. “Someone must not have closed the cage properly. Now we’ll have to look for it, and that means delaying the unit on planning our spring garden.”
Before the 5-year-olds arrive, she walks down the hall and talks to Ms. Rodriguez, the director.
“Pets can be lots of trouble,” Ms. Rodriguez says, nodding her head. “Are you sure you want to go on having one?”
“Do you mean I have a choice?” asks Ms. Sanders incredulously. “I don’t have to have a pet in the classroom?”
“Think about it, and let me know what you decide,” the director says.
That evening, Ms. Sanders sits down at her computer and considers the pros and cons of classroom pets.
Advantages of classroom pets
Like many teachers, Ms. Sanders has experienced the benefits to children of having a pet in the classroom. Since September, she believes her 5-year-olds have gained a greater sense of responsibility through feeding the hamster and cleaning the cage. They have learned compassion through careful handling and empathizing with the helpless little creature. She fondly recalls some children exclaiming, “It’s so cute!”
The experience has provided hands-on learning about science and the environment, giving children greater respect for living things. They have been stimulated to learn more through books and the Internet. As children have worked together, they have practiced language and social skills. The children with no pet at home have gained the experience of having a pet.
Not all has been happiness and awe, however. She recalls a previous year in which the pet hamster escaped and was later found dead. Even so, the experience proved beneficial because children learned about death as a part of life and were allowed to grieve by holding a funeral.
Disadvantages of classroom pets
On the negative side, Ms. Sanders quickly notes noise, smell, and mess. “Yuck,” she says to herself. Plus, the occasional escapes are annoying and disruptive.
Sometimes the pet’s noise and activity have distracted children from what she thought they needed to be learning. Too, some children don’t seem to remember when it’s their turn to feed the hamster or simply don’t want to clean the cage of animal droppings every day. In those cases, she assumes responsibility for the animal’s care. And by spring, children are bored with the hamster and weary of the chore of caring for it.
In addition, she and the class always have to find someone who will care for the hamster on weekends and during holidays, which is never easy. Earlier this year, the Jones family volunteered for Thanksgiving but called the day after and pleaded to return the pet before their time was up. One year she held a lottery for who would take the pet home, after first getting parents’ permission. When she announced the result, the winning child squealed with delight, but the child’s mother frowned.
What about cost? For the hamster’s food, she scrounges bits of fruit and vegetables left from lunch and snacks served to the children, or she brings those items from home. The bedding is changed every week. So far, she has never had a hamster get sick, which would require the cost of taking it to a veterinarian.
She estimates $10 a month, or about $120 a year—not counting the cost of the cage, water bottle, and the hamster itself. “Not expensive,” she thinks, “but I sure could use that money on other things.” She notes that she already buys tissues for runny noses and occasional supplies for activities, such as the magnets for the science center. In addition, she uses gasoline to drive to the pet store and spends time shopping.
“Anything else?” she asks herself. “Oh, yes,” she thinks. In the past, she has had children who had asthma or were allergic to pet hair and dander (the dead skin cells shed by furry animals). Because hamsters are small, allergy-prone children are not as sensitive to them as larger animals. But rather than prohibiting a child from close contact with a hamster, she would give it away—and possibly choose a goldfish.
“This hamster has been harmless,” she thinks, but she remembers an incident reported by a fellow teacher of a pet biting a child. Ms. Sanders has been vigilant about teaching the children to handle the hamster gently, without squeezing, and not wake it when it’s sleeping. Still there’s a risk.
“OK,” she thinks. “I’ve considered the children, their families, and myself.” After a moment, it occurs to her that she has not considered the animal. “What about the hamster? Are its needs being met?” In the wild hamsters are nocturnal, and they sleep during the day. They live in burrows and eat seeds, nuts, vegetation, and insects. Most of all, they are free. What must it be like to live in a cage? When taken out of the cage, how must it feel to be squeezed by lots of little hands?
What’s the goal?
Ms. Sanders begins to think more broadly about pets and animals in general. Some children in her class, for example, have gerbils, dogs, cats, and birds at home. Some children—and even schools—have chickens or ducks they keep in a coop. Some children have turtles, lizards, and even snakes. “Yipe!”
As with many issues she has faced in the past, Ms. Sanders asks herself: “What are we trying to accomplish? Are there other ways to accomplish the same goal?” She writes this statement:
I want children to learn the following:
A pet is an animal that we have for enjoyment and companionship.
Pets depend upon us for their food, water, shelter, and attention.
We should use caution around pets, especially those we don’t know.
We should be kind to animals.
With those goals in mind, Ms. Sanders begins to think about learning activities for children, including children younger than 5. In preparing activities like those that follow, she remembers to send a note to all parents alerting them to the possible presence of visiting animals or permanent classroom pets.
(Age 3 and older)
Gather books and magazines with large animal pictures. At group time, identify each animal by name, such as cow, horse, goat, deer, bear, and elephant. Imitate the sounds they make and ask children to do the same. (You can listen to animal sounds on the Internet on Google and YouTube.) Ask whether an animal sound might change depending upon what it’s trying to say—“I’m angry,” “I’m happy,” or “I’m afraid.”
(Age 3 and older)
Ask four children to each be a different animal, such as pig, turkey, donkey, and horse. Explain that each will be a mom or dad, go out of the room for a minute, and come back to find their baby by the animal’s sound. While they are gone, divide the rest of the children into small groups. At least one child in each group should be a baby to one of the four parents, while other children will be the babies of other animals (cow, goat, and chicken, for example). When the animal parents return, they listen to each baby animal in turn and claim babies by the sound they make.
Variation: Play the same game with jungle animals such as elephant, monkey, and lion.
Animal count walk
(Age 3 and older)
Plan a walk with children in the neighborhood or a nearby park. Encourage them to identify animals they see, such as dogs, cats, squirrels, birds, turtles, toads, and lizards. Take pictures of the animals, if possible. When you return to the classroom, display the photos on a computer screen or print them. Ask: “How many did we see?” Invite children to distinguish between pets and non-pets and look for ways kindness is being shown. For example, a dog may have a collar and tag, and a feeder may be set out for birds or squirrels. Write down what children say and read their dictations aloud.
Dog and cat breeds
(Age 4 and older)
Search the Internet to find pictures of a variety of dog or cat breeds. (Google “dog breeds” or “cat breeds.”)
Ask children which pictures look most like their pets (or a pet in their neighborhood) and why. Say and write the names of the different breeds. Explain that a breed is a type of animal whose babies look the same as the parents. For example, a Golden Retriever has puppies that are Golden Retrievers. Encourage children to compare breeds by the animal’s size, color, and features, such as ears and fur.
Discuss the function of different animal body parts such as padded paws, claws, and whiskers. Discuss how differences can be helpful. Huskies, for example, need thick fur to stay warm in the Artic, while Chihuahuas need to be almost hairless to stay cool in warm climates like Mexico.
(Age 4 and older)
Invite a family to bring their pet dog or cat from home. Because adult dogs and cats can be skittish with strangers, a puppy or kitten might be best. Prepare children in advance and set limits on behavior (no tail pulling or shouting, for example). Allow the family’s child to tell about the animal, and invite children to ask questions. Take pictures and thank the family. Talk with children about what they liked best or least about the animal.
Note: Some pets, especially reptiles (turtles, snakes, lizards, and iguanas) and amphibians (frogs and toads), may carry salmonella bacteria. In Texas, for example, the Minimum Standards prohibit children from having direct contact with these animals as well as chicken and ducks.
Guest animal expert
(Age 5 and older)
Invite an animal expert to speak to the children about his or her work. A veterinarian might talk about treating animal injuries or illnesses, for example. A dog groomer might demonstrate bathing or clipping a small dog. A person who works in an animal shelter might describe how animals are cared for and adopted. After the visit, invite children to draw or cut out pictures from magazines of all the things these workers use to care for animals. Examples are food, feeding dish, collar, scratching post, doghouse, litterbox, sponge and shampoo, dog brush, and flea medicine.
(Age 5 and older)
A service dog is specifically trained to help people with disabilities, such as visual impairment, hearing loss, mental illness, seizure disorder, mobility impairment, diabetes, severe allergies, or autism. To find a local service dog organization, contact a local agency that serves people with disabilities. Or go to Assistance Dogs International (www.assistancedogsinternational.org/) to locate organizations in your state.
Invite a representative to your program to give a demonstration of how a dog helps a person with a visual impairment or other disability. Ask how the dog is trained and assigned to a person. Talk about how service dogs are allowed in many public places and how we need to behave around a person with a service dog if we encounter them.
(Age 4 and older)
You may be able to find an organization in your area that provides petting zoos to schools, shopping malls, and events such as fairs and festivals. The petting zoo may feature a variety of small animals such as rabbits, chicks, ducklings, pigs, goats, and lambs. As the name implies, children are allowed to pet the animals. Remember to follow strict hygiene practices, especially hand-washing, after playing with animals.
(Age 5 and older)
Many communities have organizations that your program can visit. Scout the site in advance to determine if it’s appropriate for the children in your care. Call ahead to schedule a field trip, sign up parents or volunteers to help you supervise the children, and discuss the site with children in advance. Set rules for safety and decide how you will keep track of children (such as wearing the same color T shirts).
Plan to take pictures and write notes while visiting. Afterward, display pictures and discuss the visit.
Be sure to follow state licensing regulations for field trips, including parent notification, staff-to-child ratios, and vehicle safety.
Veterinary clinic. Ask a clinic staffer to explain what happens in a clinic and give you a tour of the exam rooms, operating rooms, and kennels. Why do pets need to go to the vet? Why do pets need
Animal shelter. Ask a staff member to talk about why pets are brought in and how they are cared for and adopted. How could you locate a pet if it is scared away from home by fireworks, lost in a flood, or goes missing in some other way? What are the benefits of registering a pet and implanting a microchip?
Farm. Ask the farmer to give you a tour so that children might see different animals, such as chickens, cows, horses, and goats. What does the farmer feed each animal and how often? Does the farmer grow the food to feed them? Do animals live in the open or in a coop or barn? What do the animals produce (eggs, milk, and meat)?
Natural history museum. Ask about admission fees. Depending on the museum’s size, you might plan to visit only one part on a trip, such as the mounted specimens of birds and mammals. Point out the different environments in which the specimens are exhibited.
Zoo. Ask about admission fees. Depending on the zoo’s size, you might plan to visit only one part on a trip, such as African animals (rhinoceros, zebra, giraffe, and monkeys) or bears, for example. Point out the different environments in which they live. How does the zoo prevent them from escaping? Do you think the animals are happy?
Adopt an animal. Many zoos have an adoption program in which you can assist with an animal’s care while the animal stays in the zoo. The Houston Zoo, for example, has three adoption packages, each of which comes with a photo and newsletter: Advocate ($35), Guardian ($60), and Protector ($100). See www.houstonzoo.org/support-the-zoo/adopt-an-animal/. To pay the fee, you might ask for donations from families or a pet store, set up a donation can for loose change, or do a fundraising project such as a bake sale.
Scoop the Poop
(Age 5 and older)
Many cities have passed laws requiring citizens to remove fecal matter left by their dogs in public places. By scooping the poop, people show they are taking responsibility for their pets and helping the environment. Otherwise the dog feces (and bacteria) could come in contact with other animals and people, get carried by insects, and end up in rivers and lakes.
Go outdoors and demonstrate how to scoop the poop. Using a scooper bag (available at pet stores and Amazon.com) and a heaping spoonful of playdough, show how to use the bag like a glove, gather up the playdough, and use the other hand to pull the bag over the fingers with the playdough left inside. Emphasize that the filled bag goes in the trash. (If you’re squeamish, scooper spades are also available.)
Expect lots of giggling as children experiment with saying poop. Use the opportunity to explain that all animals—and humans—produce waste and that it must be disposed of properly. Point out that humans use a toilet that flushes away the waste, but animals cannot. Use vocabulary such as feces and bowel movement. If a child uses a certain vulgar word for feces, avoid over-reacting. Simply say, “That word is not OK to use in our classroom.”
Invite children to make signs saying “Scoop the Poop” to put in their yards. This is a great opportunity for children to learn the letter “O” and have fun with rhyming.
(Age 5 and older)
Invite children to draw or paint pictures of animals on construction paper. Older children might depict a theme of kindness, care, and respect for animals. Cut out the pictures and glue to a 4-inch by 5-inch index card to use as a bookmark. Or glue to a craft stick to use as a puppet.
Be Kind to Animals Week®
(Age 5 and older)
Since 1915, the American Humane Society has sponsored a Be Kind to Animals Week. The celebration is held the first full week of May—this year May 6-12.
At group time, ask children: “What does it mean to be kind?” Mention examples of human behavior that show thoughtfulness, friendliness, and generosity.
Talk with children about ways they can be kind to each other. Some ideas:
Be friendly to a child who is new to the classroom.
Share a toy or snack with another child.
Help the teacher clean up the classroom.
Write a cheerful note to a child who is sick and absent.
Ask: “How can we be kind to our pets and other animals?” Some ideas:
Help care for the classroom pet.
Offer to take a friend’s or neighbor’s dog for a walk, and pick up the poop if needed.
Make treats for a dog or cat.
Set up a bird house on the playground or at home. Make sure it’s at least 8 feet off the ground and away from trees or structures on which squirrels can climb.
Plant flowers around the playground or at home to help bring in butterflies and hummingbirds.
Invite children to find images of kindness being shown to animals in magazines or on the Internet. Print the images and display on the class bulletin board. Encourage children to find photographs and articles about kindness to animals in magazines and pin them to the bulletin board.
It’s your choice
After thinking about classroom pets, Ms. Sanders decides that the most important goal is to help children learn to be kind to animals. Will she continue to have a pet in the classroom? Or will she give it up? What would you decide?
Books for children
Never pass up an opportunity to share meaningful and insightful books with children—even infants. Look for books with engaging, realistic photographs and authentic text to stimulate conversations about kindness to animals.
Infants and toddlers
Editors of Kingfisher. (2011). Baby Animals: Pets. London: Kingfisher.
This small (6-inches square) board book contains color photos of seven animals: two common classroom pets—hamster and guinea pig--and five common baby pets—puppy, kitten, rabbit, pony, and unidentified birds (probably parakeets).
Rizzi, K. (2012). ¿Quién vive aquí/Who Lives Here? Cambridge, MA: Star Bright Books.
On each two-page spread of this 5-inch square-board book, the text asks “Who lives here” in Spanish and English. Readers choose which of five potential pets on the left might live in the dwelling on the right and then lift a flap to find the correct answer.
Sirett, Dawn. (2016). Noisy Pets Peekaboo! New York, NY: DK Publishing.
This board book combines color photos of five pets—kittens, rabbits, birds (parakeets), hamsters, and puppies –with the sounds they make. A flap covering each animal on alternate pages invites a child to lift it up and play peekaboo.
Berenzy, Alix. (2005). Sammy: The Classroom Guinea Pig. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
In this story, Sammy seems upset, crying “Wheeep! Wheeep!” As a teacher and her students try to figure out why, readers learn what constitutes good care for a classroom guinea pig.
Boothroyd, Jennifer. (2014). How I Care for My Pet. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company
In color photographs and simple text, readers learn the basics of caring for a pet dog—feeding, walking, playing fetch, and cleaning. At the end, the author suggests an activity: Pretend that you’re responsible for caring for a pet and write a story about how you would do it.
Keats, Ezra Jack. (1972). Pet Show! New York, NY: Puffin Books.
A prolific and masterful writer and illustrator of children’s books, Keats won a Caldecott Medal in 1962 for his classic The Snowy Day. In this later book, Pet Show!, he uses bright color oil paintings and simple text to tell a story about children vying for prizes, except Archie who can’t find the neighborhood cat.
Nelson, Robin. (2003). Pet Hamster. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company.
This is the perfect book for teaching children how to care for a pet hamster in the classroom. The book contains color photos of different hamsters and simple text explaining their needs and their likes (living alone, climbing, sleeping during the day, playing with toys, and being with people).
DK Publishing. (2013). DK Readers LO: Petting Zoo. New York, NY: DK Publishing.
Part of the DK READERS series, this book of color photos and simple text offers a look at 12 animals children might see at a petting zoo. On some photos, labels identify an animal’s body parts, such as snout and hoof on a pig and feathers on a goose.
Kalman, Bobbie. (2012). Baby Pets. New York, NY: Crabtree Publishing Company.
This book contains color photos of common pets: puppies, kittens, bunnies, rodents (hamsters, gerbils, mice, and chinchillas) as well as guinea pigs and ponies. After an introduction, the book offers four pages that explain what mammals are and how they depend on their mothers. The last two pages of this 24-page book mentions equipment used with pets, such as leash, carrier, litter box, cage, brush, and toys.
Geisel, Theodor Seuss (Dr. Seuss). (2015). What Pet Shall I Get? New York, NY: Random House.
After Dr. Seuss died in 1991, his family found a manuscript and sketches for what would become a book about a familiar children’s dilemma—choosing a pet. The story starts with the common choice between a dog and cat but quickly expands to include a bird, a rabbit, and fish and eventually to fanciful animals often found in this popular author’s books.
Parker, Marjorie Blain. (2002). Jasper’s Day. Tonawanda, NY: Kid Can Press.
A child coping with the death of a beloved pet may find solace in reading how Riley, a young boy, and his family spend their dog’s last day. Old Jasper’s cancer has gotten really bad, and they don’t want him to suffer any longer. They revisit his favorite places, take photos, and tearfully say goodbye before Dad drives him to the clinic to be put to sleep. They bury Jasper in the backyard, and Riley is left with pictures and memories.