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Scales, Fur, Feathers, Fins... How to Host a Montessori Menagerie!

Heard the impish-yelping of a fire-bellied toad lately? Watched a chinchilla stand on its hind legs and peacefully take a seed from a child’s hand? Observed firsthand, the ten-inch long tongue of a chameleon light across a tree to obtain an insect? Seen a child supporting the ball-shaped form of a spiky hedgehog curled up in gloved hands and watching it uncurl and peek at its host?

Making the Best Match Present a Fundamental Lesson
Preparing the Pet's Environment Experience Cosmic Education

Have you ever... sat next to a three-foot long iguana
(or a giant rabbit or a cockatoo) while laying out
the Square of Pythagoras on a rug?

With such experiences, how can we not be in awe of life? In such circumstances, life itself is exciting, unusual, normal, and mystifying all at the same time. Pets are a great way to provide a concrete example of the uniqueness and individuality of living things.

But we have fears -- personal fears, logistical fears, concerns for the animal, concerns for the children... The list goes on and on, but, frankly, solutions are easy and simple and provide the cornerstones of respect for self, others, and the environment.

There are many ways to have animals in the classroom. Occasionally, wildlife rescue programs, zoos, and traveling animal troupes like Classroom Safari in Sonoma County, CA will visit classrooms and provide hands-on experience with animals. This is a guaranteed way to excite children about animals and inspire plenty of curiosity. Seeing a Fennec Fox or a Snow Leopard firsthand is a perfect invitation for an inquisitive, researching mind. Imagine how such an experience might inspire the child to ask: What? Where? Why? How? When? How many?

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A few Montessori things to keep in mind...

If you're willing and able to keep an animal as a permanent guest, I have found classroom pets to be, quite simply, amazing members of our classes and a wonderful “material” for the children. And, just like any good lesson, caring for pets provides a point of interest and purposeful work.

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Ask around to make the best match.

Determine the children's interests. Research the needs and welfare of animals you are considering. Ask around about animals in the classroom. See who has what and how it’s working. Observe children in classrooms caring for their animal friends. All my classroom animal choices have been facilitated by a dear Montessori friend across the country (Thanks, Alice!), whose science background, experience, and inspiration led me way outside of my comfort level and brought much joy and learning to the children.

Observe and understand what your children are capable of providing. Ages, skill level, awareness of others’ needs, and empathy are all needed to care for animals. Your youngest children require fish flake in a dish; your older children can retrieve only one flake from the food container. Consider in advance, so all the children can be independent and successful in properly caring for the animal. Find an animal suited for your children’s developmental capabilities and it will thrive in your classroom.

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Prepare the environment.

Appropriate habitats are a must and are often compromised in classrooms. Size, space, access, nourishment, freedom, and safety must be provided for the animal and also allow children to independently care for the animal. Determine the habitat/space needs of your class pet and provide it in excess.

If your classroom is small, consider an animal that takes up little square footage. Our chinchilla needed height for climbing more than width so it was a good fit for our room. The rabbit, on the other hand, needed a very big home to retreat to when he wasn’t hanging out with the children. A ten-gallon fish tank only holds a couple of fish appropriately.

Providing an appropriate habitat models for the children how we meet the needs of living things. This, of course, parlays nicely into an ecological perspective and reverence for life.

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Present a Fundamental Lesson.

Give the children an orderly, organized, focused, and consistent first look at the animal. Allow them to observe in order to discover what the animal needs and how to provide it. Children will realize through their observations that the Chinese Water Dragon really prefers veggies to fruit, for example.

Provide children with opportunities to establish a rapport with the animal and learn how to safely pick it up. They will soon discover whether it is comfortable being picked up or if a quiet invitation to approach will coax the animal to step up onto a finger or hand on its own.

This is my favorite part -- when given the chance, children have a great sense of an animal's need to do things in its own time. It is like a child politely saying, “No, thank you,” when we invite her for a lesson. Children offer the animal the same option.

The intent of a fundamental lesson is to capture the young child's interest, wholly and intently. With equipment and materials at the ready, after an uninterrupted presentation in using the materials and interacting with the animal, children are simply captivated by the challenge of caring for a classroom pet.

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Invite the children to do it themselves.

The freedom to decide if the animal needs food, new bedding, or companionship, and the responsibility for completing necessary tasks should be at the discretion of the children. This first-hand experience -- observing, understanding, and embracing the fundamental needs of an animal -- enriches the child's understanding of life cycles, vertebrates and invertebrates, biomes, etc. It also provides a natural opportunity to apply and refine Practical Life skills, as well as a chance to care for others.

One teacher I know solved the dilemma of oversight without interference with a clever set of "needs" cards in a basket next to the habitat. Cards were labeled This animal is hungry and This animal needs a drink, etc. Children (and teachers) could fix a card to the habitat when a need was observed and/or meet the need and tuck the card back in the basket.

As we do with all of our materials, observe and check often to ensure that animals and children are all faring well. How is the pet being embraced, cared for, and studied in the classroom? Is everyone thriving, children and animals alike?

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Experience Cosmic Education.

After all the observations, nomenclature, cultural study, and practical life, it comes down to the cosmic. I have never seen such reverence for life as I did with Primary and Elementary children. I will never forget watching one five-year-old carrying ants from our classroom on her finger one by one; she told me she was taking them “to a better habitat outside”. She did this for an hour, moving every single one.

I have a photograph of a three-year-old child lovingly holding a bearded dragon, the same bearded dragon that my husband was quite uncertain about. “Are you sure you want to put that in the classroom, Kelly? It looks scary -- won’t the children be frightened?” They were, in fact, quite thrilled.

Granted, we were an animal loving bunch. During my 3-6 internship, there was a three-horned Jackson Chameleon that lived on our classroom ficus tree. It provided a wonderful experience for the children and introduced me to the possibilities of a living classroom.

In the end, when our chameleon was aging and not strong enough to go after his food, the children and teachers held crickets, inviting “Spike” to eat. We were all a bit conflicted about holding crickets for him (as opposed to simply leaving his preferred food on his tree for him to find). It didn’t feel respectful to the cricket -- a living dilemma of the diversity of vegetarian, vegan families in our community.

When Spike passed we had a beautiful and moving ceremony designed by the children, to thank the chameleon for his gift of living. In the process, the children named everything they felt Spike had contributed to the world and to each of them as individuals. The list was lengthy, thoughtful, and profound.

I stood in awe.

— Kelly Griffith Mannion, M. Ed. Kelly's credentials include a Montessori Primary and a Lower Elementary Credential, as well as a Master's of Education in Early Childhood, Montessori Education. Kelly has worn many Montessori hats, acting at various times as a teacher, administrator, teacher-trainer, and board member. Her current passion is a public Montessori Elementary Charter School in Petaluma, CA.
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