Class pets teach kids life lessons

Class pets teach kids lessons for a lifetime
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Both students and teachers alike are grateful to attend school in-person during the pandemic, but having a plethora of pets in the halls makes it even better. 

Thanks to the school’s experiential education program, students at Wamsley are learning to care for a variety of animals including a turtle, frogs, geckos, hermit crabs, millipedes and some huge cockroaches. Yes, they are in fact giant hissing cockroaches from Texas.

The experiential education (EE) program is in its third year and is building on the idea of creating a curriculum that addresses standards and encourages students to do things with their hands and connect with the outdoors.“The experiences that some of our students have are limited and we feel like they will learn a lot more life skills with hands-on activities,” says academic coach Kelly Hillbrand. “Part of EE is to provide those life skills where they may be lacking.” 

Principal Kathi Senor has a special connection to the project in that she grew up taking care of animals and spending lots of time outdoors. “Animals, pets, and the outdoors have always been an important part of my life,” says Senor. “Pets in particular taught me responsibility and to care for other living things. I enjoyed learning about different types of animals and enjoy sharing that love of learning with the kids in my classroom as a teacher and now with all kids as a principal.”
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Hillbrand says she sees the pets as being a permanent part of the school’s culture. They knew it would be a commitment when they learned that the turtle’s lifespan is over 20 years. “We’re training the kids to take care of their pets,” says Hillbrand. “We want them to learn how to take care of something besides themselves.”

Students at Wamsley have been more than willing to care for all of the pets that reside in the halls outside of their classrooms, even the giant cockroaches. Maibely Cobon, Alicia Leal and Monserrat Rodriguez are three brave girls who recently held the critters for the very first time. 

According to Cobom, taking care of the pets is an important role to play at school. “I think school has changed because it’s making me feel like I’m really held responsible,” says Cobon. “I feel like I’m responsible for things because I have to feed them every morning.”

Though Leal’s preferred pet is the turtle, she had no problem carrying a cockroach in the palm of her hand. She even took it around to show her classmates. “It’s educational to learn about animals,” says Leal. “I like to do it because it’s fun and I like helping the animals. We come in to see where they are every day and learn about what they eat.”
Garfield Re-2 School District

The EE program isn’t just fun for the kids as it’s also a creative activity that teaches problem-solving skills. “They learn a lot of life science skills and they learn to have compassion for something other than themselves,” says EE coordinator Sarah Brusig. “I love that they can just come in and be really gentle and really nurturing. I just think it's a good life skill.”

Brusig says that since everybody's a little down from the pandemic, the pets are an outlet and release for the students. “It's almost like a support,” says Brusig. “They can be supporting animals for kids to check in with every day. And I think it makes them want to come to school in a time when it might feel better not to do so.” 

Senor says the pets arriving after Christmas was just the boost of an experience that the school is so used to providing its kids with through EE.  “We use the pets as breaks for kids that need to get away for just a bit to refocus,” says Senor. “I even notice staff looking and talking to the pets often as well. The pets have been a bit of therapy for all of us because they give us something to worry about that is not COVID related.”

“There’s also a sense of community,” says Hillbrand. “When we’re going through this weird time together, the kids remember that they have a support system here at school. Part of that is the fact that we’re all taking care of something together. That’s what a family does.”

Wamsley’s next goal involving the pet project is to create food for the animals, starting with raising its own crickets. The school also hopes to hatch baby chicks this spring and build an enclosure for the turtle so that he can live in the school’s garden. 

In the future, Senor says she would like every classroom to have its own pets so more kids can have the experience of having a pet and the responsibility of being the veterinarian in charge of caring for them. “I would also like to add some outdoor pets someday, such as a pond with koi, a butterfly garden and wild bird watching with a feeding station,” says Senor.
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