SPCA New Zealand

Animals in classrooms: why children don’t need animals in classrooms to learn

01 September 2020
Animals in classrooms: why children don’t need animals in classrooms to learn

Ask any child about dinosaurs, and most will reel off bundles of facts for you about their favourite species and the Mesozoic era.

Ask them about elephants and they might know less about this endangered species – even though they can see them in real-life at many zoos.

Dinosaurs have been extinct for 66 million years, but elephants still roam our planet. So, what can we learn from this?

“We know now that children don’t need to observe animals in captivity to develop knowledge and understanding about them and positive attitudes towards them” says SPCA Education Manager Nicole Peddie.

The dinosaur theory

SPCA’s education programme is in its third year and gives all New Zealand Primary and Intermediate schools access to free, unlimited online teaching resources. Its aim is to promote compassion, empathy, and to teach the next generation of animal guardians vital lessons about animal welfare. It is designed to enable this learning without the need to bring real animals into a classroom environment.

It’s a move away from previous teaching approaches, once seen as vital to learning about animal care, which saw children having “class pets”, such as rabbits or participating in chick hatching projects. This way of thinking is relatively new for SPCA.

In the past, a key part of our educational work with children included classroom and community visits with animals. However, with the development of the SPCA Education Programme, SPCA CEO Andrea Midgen says that research revealed taking animals into classrooms for short visits wasn’t the most effective way of teaching children about animal care and welfare, nor was this usually in the best interest of the animals themselves.

“When we began developing the education programme about five years ago at the Auckland Centre, we looked to what had been done overseas in the field. Evidence showed meaningful and ongoing lessons were the most successful in creating behaviour change towards animals and there wasn’t a need for animals to be present in classrooms.

“As an organisation, SPCA wants to move to having evidence-based positions where our work is supported by scientific research, and to focus on preventing cruelty in our communities.

This is how the SPCA Education Programme came into development.

Introduction of the education programme

The SPCA Education Programme consists of a teachers’ portal, a kids’ portal, and three series of learn-to-read storybooks. Nicole tells us that all three aspects to the programme complement each other while working towards one relative goal: breaking the cycle of animal cruelty in communities, nurturing children’s empathy and teaching compassion - even if they do not unfortunately learn this at home.

“Sadly, there are children around New Zealand who witness animal neglect on a daily basis. SPCA wanted to ensure we help these children develop empathy and compassion towards people and animals, which is vital for changing this behaviour. They are our next generation of animal guardians and it’s important we teach them how animals should be treated.”

Designed by teachers, for teachers, the SPCA Education Programme is evidence based and was launched after 18 months of extensive research and development in the animal welfare and education fields with an aim to guarantee that animal welfare is taught in an ongoing, real-life, meaningful context.

“Animal welfare education is not only about kindness toward animals, it promotes compassion and respect for all living beings. Research conducted by experts in the fields of education, child psychology, and criminology, demonstrate that children raised with the principles of compassion, respect, kindness, and empathy are more likely to develop into adults who exhibit these behaviours.,” says Nicole,

Neuroscience and psychology studies are helping us to develop a better understanding about cruelty and these have also guided the SPCA Education Programme during the planning stages and helped Nicole and her team develop many of the resources.

Cambridge University professor Simon Baron Cohen examines the psychology behind cruelty in his book ‘In The Science of Evil: on Empathy and Cruelty’ (2012). He writes that it is vital when understanding evil to consider that in the presence of empathy, cruelty cannot thrive. Empathy acts as a natural barrier towards hurting others, so inflicting pain on another would also cause pain to ourselves if we feel empathy.

Furthermore, a Cambridge University study by Maria Nikolajeva substantiates the power of storytelling and illustrates how carefully crafted fictional stories about animals can have a powerful influence on children - in not only supporting their literary achievement, but also their social and emotional development . This is why an important part of SPCA Education is the series of learn-to-read storybooks – books that help children with reading while they learn about animal care.

“A building body of research shows that in certain contexts the brain reacts to fictional worlds as if they were real. In these situations fiction can develop new neural pathways, improving what psychologists call ‘theory of mind’ - an understanding of how other people feel and think,” says Nicole.

Animals in classrooms

Given the range of levels and learning styles in a classroom, and that teachers are busier than ever – the SPCA Education Programme’s resources are aligned with the New Zealand curriculum to support meaningful and ongoing learning through core subjects.

In practice, this means children can learn maths by preparing a budget for having a pet or learn persuasive speech by debating whether pets should be desexed. They learn more much than if the topic was taught only in a fleeting one-size fits all classroom visit, says Nicole: “Real, deeper learning needs to be ongoing, rather than a stand-alone session and must be tailored to meet the needs of individual learners – only classroom teachers know their learners well enough to do this effectively.”

Due to how the free in-school resources have been designed – to support ongoing, varied, in-depth learnings for all individuals – the focus in classrooms should be on these engaging activities. There is no need for real animals to be present for these lessons.

While teachers may consider keeping an animal as a ‘class companion’ to help children develop an understanding about how to care for an animal, it’s important to remember that a classroom is not an ideal environment for an animal to live and therefore not the best example for children to learn from. Schools are busy places and can be overwhelming for an animal. This in turn means animals’ behavioural and environmental needs are unlikely to be met when faced with a hectic classroom environment, lots of energy, and forced human contact.

“Early childhood centres and schools can be noisy and stressful places for animals and it is very difficult to look after any animal’s needs properly in a classroom environment. This applies to any animal, including rabbits, guinea pigs, birds and fish,” says Nicole.

Nicole explains that responsibilities for an animal's needs do not stop when the school day ends and include evenings, weekends and holidays too. “As a former teacher myself, I know firsthand that teachers are already busy, and do not need to contend with the responsibility attached to keeping an animal in the classroom.“

“As the dinosaur theory shows, classrooms don’t need real-life animals in there to teach children. We believe that the prevention of cruelty and promotion of empathy and compassion for human and non-human animals can be achieved through education. In a classroom environment, classroom pets aren’t needed to get these messages across to our younger generations,” says Nicole.

Teaching children empathy for animals in communities

More than 900 schools across New Zealand have signed to the SPCA Education Programme since its launch and use the free units and lessons plans to create tailored activities for their students. Feedback shows how well received these have been in classrooms across New Zealand.

Willow Park School new entrant teacher, Theresa Kinloch created a ‘vet clinic’ in her classroom to help children learn what types of medical care an animal might need and how they should be cared for. They used soft toy animals, pretend medical equipment and displayed animal grooming tips on the walls. A haven for young animal-loving enthusiasts to live out their dreams of becoming a veterinarian!

The vet clinic has to be kept clean, tidy, quiet and “safe” for the “animals” at all times (just like a real veterinary clinic).

“Play corners like this vet clinic provide imaginative, social learning experiences and are ideal for children to experience and explore different roles and responsibilities of people,” says Theresa.

“Our students have been involved in a range of imaginative play activities with animals – brushing the “cats” and “walking” the “dogs” around the classroom. The toy animals visiting the “vet” have been checked over to see if they are healthy, have had their vaccinations and, of course, operations if needed! The children have learnt and practiced gentle, soft and quiet behaviour when handling the “sick animals” – you observe them and they’re treating and talking to the animals just as they would real-live animals.”

Matapu School teacher, Lauren Procter – used a similar idea for her classroom but just advanced the components within the vet clinic for older students. They created their own ‘waiting room', ‘assessment’ area, and animal clinic examination form to use with their ‘patients’ (soft animal toys).

“These are fantastic examples of how teachers can adapt learning experiences to create something personally relevant and engaging for every student,” says Nicole.

These examples are just one way in which children can be taught about responsibility, animal care, life cycles, habits and other animal sciences without putting the well-being of any animals at stake. “Fortunately, empathy, compassion, respect and kindness can be developed in children without keeping an animal in your classroom.”

Real life connections

There are so many animals around children in normal life they can learn from. These could be animals at home, grazing in nearby paddocks or those living freely in the wild. “These scenarios provide alternative opportunities to observe and learn from animals instead of keeping animals caged in your classroom or school grounds,” says Nicole.

There’re plenty of alternatives to keeping animals in classrooms, and Nicole has some great ideas for in class or education experiences outside of the classroom (EOTC):

  • Have animal companion news time – encourage children to put together photos or videos of their animal companion at home and share facts about their favourite activities to do at home, such as their favourite toy or sleeping spot.
  • Soft toy animals – like those used in the examples above, soft toys can be lots of fun for younger children and you’ll be surprised how seriously they take the responsibility of taking the pet toy home for the night.
  • Have class plants not class “pets”- a great way to incorporate something more long-term in your classroom instead of using animal “pets”. Choose an interesting looking and hardy plant that will thrive in your classroom environment and each week designate a child to be the plant’s caretaker.
  • Go for nature walks – Visit your local bush, forest, beach or nature reserve and talk about the animals that inhabit these areas.
  • Picture storybooks – SPCA has a storybook collection that can be integrated seamlessly into school’s reader collection and classroom literacy programmes. All New Zealand primary schools were given free copies, but more can be purchased at www.spca.nz/storybooks
  • Make Toys for SPCA Animals – Teachers can use the SPCA Kids Portal (https://kids.spcaeducation.org.nz/) to learn how to make toys for SPCA animals who are waiting for their forever homes.
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