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Pets for Your Classroom (Real & Virtual)

Students definitely benefit from having pets in the classroom.  It provides the students with a sense of pride and the ability to be a care taker.  Caring for a pet encourages shared responsibility.  Studies have shown that it doesn’t matter if the pet is live or virtual, the same teaching outcomes can be achieved.

For special needs students, pets can provide an outlet for students to reduce tension, take responsibility, and learn how to care for the animal.  These skills can then be transferred through teacher-based lessons that make the connections between caring for the animal to caring for oneself including health and hygiene.

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Live Pets in the Classroom

When I did my student teaching in a fourth grade classroom, I donated a fish tank full of colorful inexpensive, fish with the approval (and excitement) of my preceptor and supervisor.  I had a tank in my home for many years and was comfortable with the care and could coach the teacher.   This was a great teaching tool that was easy to take care of in a classroom setting.  Students would offer to come in early to help with the tasks associated with the care including feeding, water changes, water testing, and even tank cleanings. Parents also volunteered supplies for the care of the fish and one parent even helped to buy additional fish.  The local aquarium store owner and staff are always willing to help teachers with their tanks and are a valuable community resource.

The learning connections included teaching the students about the various types of fish in the tank, their diet, where the fish could be found in the wild, and their water needs (appropriate pH, ammonia, and nitrate levels).  When we first got the tank, each student was assigned one of the fish in the tank to research.  They then made PowerPoint presentations to share with the class about what they learned about their new pet.

One of the most exciting moments for the class was when the guppy had babies.  The babies must be separated immediately from the mother for them to survive.  Make sure you are prepared with a separation device that can be purchased from the fish store so the mother will not eat the babies.  This can be a teachable moment, but will need to be handled with sensitivity if you want to share this fact with your students.

One other tool that is definitely handy to have for break times or long weekends is an automated feeder.  This doses out a daily serving of fish food automatically.

Other pets that are classroom friendly, but require a bit more care, include rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and turtles.  When choosing a pet, you should definitely research the temperament, care, and allergy concerns of that animal.  Then, you can determine if it will meet the needs of your classroom.  A plan should definitely be in place for the care of the animal including daily care and preparations for care over long weekends and breaks.

Here are some great online resources to help you plan to have a live animal in your classroom:

1.        KinderArt:  Pets in the Classroom

2.       Teacher Classroom Web:  Classroom Animals and Pets

3.       Suite 101:  Selecting the Right Classroom Pet

Virtual Pets

A great alternative to live pets in the classroom is a virtual classroom pet.  I know many think of the Tamagotchi or Neopets when they think of a virtual pet. The Tamagotchi is a keychain virtual pet that has to be fed, cleaned, played with, and overall cared for like a live pet.  The keychain makes noises to indicate needed care.  Neopets is an online virtual pet store where students create an account, care for their pet, and play games to “pay” for the care and fun items for their pet.  This site is run by Nickelodeon and has a very large child following.

Another similar virtual pet website is called Adopt Me.  The classroom (or individual students) can create an account and adopt a virtual pet like a virtual cat, horse, dog, or fish.  Students get to name their pet.  They can then travel around town, provide care, and play with their pet.   Students can see their friends pets online through their login information.  The pets can also have jobs to earn money to help pay for the care and fun times with the pet.  Another great classroom connection is that the students can blog about their pet through this website.

There is also an alternative to the traditional virtual pet where students can “adopt” wild animals and follow them via GPS tracking devices.  Last year, my 7th grade class “adopted” a loggerhead sea turtle named FeeBee.  She is a GPS tagged turtle that was released by an environmental complex and nature center called Gumbo Limbo in Boca Raton, Florida.  The students were able track Fee Bee daily to see her movements in the ocean via a website called SeaTurtle.org.  Many animals can be adopted online via this website for the students to follow via GPS tracking devices including sea turtles, sharks, birds, and sea lions.  This website also provides teacher materials to help you to plan how to implement this type of activity in the classroom.  I planned the adoption of Fee Bee in the summer and developed many academic lessons and classroom activities around this “pet” for the entire semester.  The project was evaluated as highly successful by administrators, parents, and students. Unfortunately, GPS systems may cease transmission and this must be considered carefully when choosing this type of adoption for a classroom project.  Feelings of loss occur just as with the death of classroom pet.

Whether real or virtual, pets can definitely add a fun and interactive way for students to be excited about learning.

Article By Laura Ketcham

Picture By missbakersflickr

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