The prepared environment of many Montessori classrooms includes an animal of one sort or another. As I've written on the other blog, the inclusion of live animals in a child’s daily life greatly enhances their abilities to learn responsibility, empathy and compassion for other living things, respect for life, and the natural development of living things. In addition to being a loving companion, pets provide comfort and solace in times of stress. This holds true for the classroom as well as in a child's home.
Having living examples of the five classes of animals (reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, insects)also helps to develop the understanding a student gleans when working with any of the zoology materials
During my years as a Montessori teacher, I have had the opportunity to work with snakes, turtles, frogs and toads, geckos, fish, tarantulas (not my favourite), lizards, stick bugs, guinea pigs, hamsters, and birds. Despite my own phobias (as in that HUGE spider) I loved watching the children watching the animals. Even more, I loved listening to their comments.
"Mrs. Dyer! I think a cricket got away!"
"Do fish like jam sandwiches?"
When talking to friends about this topic, I found there were three different schools of thought. The first was that having animals in the classroom was a great idea, the second was a more militant feeling that animals don't belong in cages and therefore shouldn't be in classrooms, and the third was that because live animals bring so many positive things into a classroom there is a place for them BUT their habitats have to be as close to real life as possible. In the words of a Biologist friend (Sabrina), "It is usually a matter of enough space and the art of 'decoration'. Frogs (her specialty) or amphibians in general have a wide range of behaviour... some don't move around much and some are very active. When you can give them what they need, its not a problem to keep them as pets. That means they need more than just a warmed cage with some soil in it. Some people, or better, most people don't think much about it. For example, most small animals and many fish need places to hide, just like in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, this may mean that the children don't see them very often."
The picture below is Sabrina's frog tank. It is an excellent example of a tank being set up to mirror an animal's natural habitat. Hiding in amongst all those leaves are tiny little frogs. They may be hard to spot, but children will quickly learn that in order to spot one, they will have to hold very still and be very patient. Good skills to take out on nature walks.
Recently, I spent some time in our Campbell River school and was fascinated to watch how the teacher's dog had become part of the classroom. The dog (Kira) spends her "down time" in the teacher's office but she doesn't stay there for long. About three or four times a morning, a child will take the short leash (made by the teacher), open the door and call Kira.
Once on the leash, Kira is walked carefully across the classroom to the mat by the front door. She is asked to sit ( and almost always obeys) then the child goes to the Practical Life shelves to get a box containing the grooming tools.
It is plain to me that Kira loves this activity as much as the children do. What I found most interesting, however, was that none of the other children were really distracted by the dog while she was in the classroom. They had accepted her presence the same way they would accept any other classmate - a novelty at first but soon just another classroom member.
It is important to note that Kira was chosen because of her mild temperament and she was introduced slowly to the classroom. In addition, we sent a notice home to the parents (and the Licensing Authority) about the dog being in the classroom and the teacher was careful to make sure there were no children allergic to dogs. As you can see from the pictures below, Kira has been accepted by the children in and out of the classroom.
Having pets in the classroom is never a replacement for taking the children out into nature. However, carefully prepared, indoor natural environments can enrich a child's understanding of the world around them.