Living things in the classroom

Many NSTA journal articles refer to working in “Outdoor Classrooms.” I teach in a neighborhood school with no grass or trees in the schoolyard, so I’m thinking of bringing the outdoors indoors by adding some plants and live animals to my classroom. I’ve never had animals before. Do you have any recommendations?
—Jack, St. Paul, Minnesota

Live plants and animals in the classroom can be a wonderful learning opportunity for students. More than just decorations, these live plants and animals can turn a classroom into a center for observing, questioning, data collecting, and developing a respect for living things.
Before you start, check out district or school policies or guidelines on live plants and animals. Look up Ken Roy’s article on the Responsible Use of Live Animals in the Classroom in July 2004 issue of Science Scope (you can access it online in NSTA’s Science Store if you don’t have your own journal archive). Take a look at the Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Precollege Education from the National Academies. Also review NSTA’s position statement, Responsible Use of Live Animals and Dissection in the Science Classroom, for some recommendations. I’ll elaborate on a few.
Consider your curriculum and standards. What learning goals are supported by having plants and animals in your classroom? Rather than relegating the animals to the back of the classroom and the plants to the windowsill, creating a learning center can focus students’ attention with questions (especially student-generated ones) and related resources. For example, in two elementary classrooms I visited, I saw very different approaches using butterfly chrysalises. In one classroom, the container was on a table surrounded by papers, books, and other miscellaneous materials. The other classroom had the same kind of container and chrysalis, but the container was the focal point of a learning center titled “How (and Why) Do Butterflies Change?” The teacher had posted students’ questions about the topic. She had insect field guides for students to look at, pictures of other kinds chrysalises and cocoons, and a magnifying glass. There was a chart on which students recorded their observations each day. In their journals, students included their questions, observations, and drawings. The students were tracking butterfly migrations on the Journey North website. All of these activities were part of a larger theme on “Changes” which incorporated topics in scientific processes, insects, and life cycles.
Choose animals carefully. You do not want venomous animals, ones that make distracting amounts of noise, or ones requiring controlled environments (as some reptiles do). Before you make any decisions, find out if any students have allergies to hair, fur, or feathers. Wild animals such as chipmunks or songbirds do not belong in the classroom (and possessing them may be in violation of state or local game laws). Small rodents such as guinea pigs, mice, or hamsters are popular classroom residents. (Of these, I personally preferred gerbils—being desert animals, their containers did not need as much cleaning.) Teachers also recommend hissing cockroaches, snakes (such as ball pythons or corn snakes), and other “herps” (such as bearded dragons, iguanas, turtles, or tree frogs). Get animals from a reputable pet shop or other provider (including rescue organizations) who can advise you and the students on their housing and care.
Aquariums are also popular in classrooms. Students (and teachers) find them relaxing and interesting to observe. If you’ve never set one up before, try a small “starter kit” and some inexpensive tropical fish. It would be a great experience for you and your students to learn together.
There are some practical and logistical issues, too. Will someone be able to get in to feed the animals or water the plants on weekends or holiday breaks? How much does the temperature fluctuate in your classroom? Do the custodians use potentially harmful cleaning chemicals or pesticides? What happens to the animals over the summer break? I never sent animals home with students, unless I was personally acquainted with the parents and knew they would be properly cared for.
There are many opportunities for inquiry with plants, especially if students start them from seeds or clippings. Choose plants that do not have poisonous leaves or berries. I know an elementary teacher who has a small houseplant for each student in his class. The students decorate the pots and take them home at the end of the year if they wish.
Your neighborhood might be a living laboratory, too. Take a look at the resources provided by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, including Project PigeonWatch and Celebrate Urban Birds.
Be ready for the impromptu “teachable moments” live animals can provide. During a standardized testing session in my homeroom, a student returning from the pencil sharpener remarked, “One of the gerbils is having babies!” I don’t remember what our test scores were that year, but it was an exciting live lesson in mammalian reproduction.

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1 Response to Living things in the classroom

  1. Great article! this is so informative.

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