They say never work with children or animals, but for a teacher the former is a given, of course. But what about adding animals into the mix?
Well, for with our Reception unit, looking at "living" and "non-living" things this year, we have been bringing animals – and more – into our classroom to provide children with real-life learning experiences.
It’s required some extra work but the impact has been huge and shows the power that "living experiences" can have in the classroom – for pedagogical purposes and beyond.
A baby and animals visiting our classroom
1. Bringing a baby to class
Our first experience, as part of our work on growth and change, was to bring in a very young baby to class, the daughter of my colleague.
Due to Covid restrictions, we ensured that all children were masked and hands were washed thoroughly before the infant entered the class.
We also discussed how we could not touch her hands or face for fear of passing germs and the children all wore their masks, understanding how they could make her sick.
Nonetheless, as this was a child of a teacher in our unit, the children were especially excited to see his baby. They had already heard so much about the baby and we had been discussing babies through texts and stories.
But experiencing the baby first-hand was fascinating for the children. They all gently touched her foot and they observed her expressions closely. They marvelled when she smiled and then eventually cried.
Children were eager to ask questions, which included how the baby was fed. We connected the feeding with our class mascot, the Whale, connecting how both humans and whales provide milk for their babies.
Language and conversations were abundant, such as: "Her fingernails are so small!"; "Look at her face – is she sad?"; "The baby looks like his daddy!"
What was notable was how these questions were all asked in English and led to natural conversations as a result – something that does not always happen within our unit.
2. A friendly dog
Following this experience, we brought a dog to class for one morning session.
To begin with, the dog waited outside the class for the children. As I welcomed children into our unit, I could see eyes peeking through the windows and the desperate attempts of children to run outside to see it.
Of course, we had to ensure this was safe to do, and so the dog was a pet of a staff member of the unit, so was trusted and reliable. However, for safety, he was kept on his lead at all times and close to my colleague.
Firstly, the children sat outside to view the dog. They were desperate to touch him, but first they listened to a discussion of how he was looked after. The children witnessed the dog running, barking, seeking treats and eating.
Not only did this learning impact on their understanding of how to care for a living thing, but also a greater lesson was learned. The teacher clearly explained how to approach animals to stroke them, after permission had been sought from an owner.
For some children who were scared of dogs, this was the first time they had approached a dog and helped to reduce their fear. They learned how to interact with a common creature they will encounter.
3. A teacher’s pet hamsters
These pets visited our unit in their home – a cage with a little house and a wheel.
The children closely observed the hamsters in this habitat and quickly learned not to overcrowd them.
They were fascinated when the hamster chose to hide, eat and drink. Some of the liveliest children slowed down, watched and encouraged others to do the same. It was interesting to note this sensitivity in such a context.
When a hamster was taken out to be handled by a colleague, the children watched carefully and again, lost in the moment, asked many questions in English. They were eager to learn more about the living creature.
4. A bug's life
Later in the year, we will learn about minibeasts – our grounds have some interesting creatures like ants, larvae, caterpillars and the odd millipede.
But we have decided to bring in a "bug" expert, complete with bugs for the children to handle and experience.
This will help to provide the expertise needed and ensure everything is safe and managed correctly. Given the success of the other visits, I am confident it will go down really well.
It’s clear there has been real value in bringing living objects into class. It stimulates curiosity – interest and the excitement ripples throughout the unit. What’s more, vocabulary is learned in context and questions and conversations flow freely.
And, of course, the children learn life lessons of how to handle living things carefully and with respect – something always worth passing on.