Clover and Chloe, a pair of Dutch dwarf rabbits, spend most of their day in the pre-K classroom of B’nai Israel Schilit Nursery School in Rockville. But the cuddly sisters are always on call to be dispatched as needed.
Early in the school year, when children struggle to separate from their parents, Assistant Director Elizabeth Carpenter says she goes into “rescue bunny operation mode” and takes a rabbit to wherever she hears crying.
“I come in with the bunny, and the faucet turns off immediately,” she says. “It really helps to calm children down and give them something else to focus on besides their own tears.” Throughout the year, Carpenter takes the rabbits on visits to the classrooms of 2- to 5-year-olds, who often jump and squeal as the animals hop around and play.
“The rabbits are real troupers and lovely with the children,” says Carpenter, who is the animals’ weekend caretaker in her Poolesville home. “What [the children] get is a feeling of empathy toward another living creature. That’s what we’re hoping to cultivate at this age.”
Classroom pets—from mammals to reptiles to fish—can teach responsible pet care, say local educators, and be real-life examples in lessons about the life sciences, chemistry, engineering and the environment.
Some teachers finance their own pet projects. Others turn to organizations, such as Pet Care Trust—a nonprofit with financial support from the pet industry—for grants from its Pets in the Classroom (PITC) program.
The most popular classroom pets are bearded dragons, fish and guinea pigs, according to Matt Coffindaffer, executive director of Pet Care Trust, which gives coupons for 37 different types of animals for teachers to buy at local pet stores. Some of the most unusual have included tarantulas and chinchillas.
“It’s not just about the entertainment; it’s about the education,” Coffindaffer says. “We think that this could be a really important channel to help create more pathways in STEM education, and particularly for young girls.”
At the all-girls Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Flavia Huber says having reptiles in her sixth-grade environmental science classroom gives her students a chance to appreciate creatures that aren’t just “cute and fuzzy,” and shows girls that science isn’t just for boys. “I want my students to develop a lifelong sense of wonder about the natural world,” Huber says.
Huber used a PITC grant last year to buy a corn snake, Noodle, which the girls can volunteer to feed tiny dead mice. She also has a three-legged spiny-tailed lizard, Trip, and a bearded dragon, Mushu, who lives in a bioactive terrarium with decomposing fungi and insects to hunt. “When we talk about nutrient cycling and food webs, Mushu comes into play,” Huber says. “The kids also just like to observe him. We joke that he sits in judgment upon us while we are doing work, because he does seem to stare.”
Students in Lore Neubeiser’s special education class at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg like to watch their classroom gerbils, Mellow and Macchiato, scurry through their tubing and play on a wheel in their enclosure. Some of the students don’t have the opportunity to keep animals at home, Neubeiser says, and the pets provide both emotional support and practical lessons.
“I hope it builds a passion for students to appreciate nature and science. They also learn how to take care of an animal,” she says. “The kids really, really connect with the gerbils. Some of them on the [autism] spectrum who really don’t interact a lot with each other come over and interact with the gerbils.”
A bonus of getting funding from PITC, Neubeiser says, was that her class bought the gerbils at Petco on a class field trip, where they learned how to ask for assistance, purchase supplies and gauge total costs.
For Jessica Neuringer at Ritchie Park Elementary School in Rockville, two Russian tortoises, Sheldon and Maisy, add a little excitement to her fifth-grade classroom. “The kids gravitate toward the tank to watch them,” she says. “Sometimes I take them out to let the kids pet the tortoise shells or let [the tortoises] walk around on the classroom floor.”
Anna Uehling, a media specialist at Harmony Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring, set up a 10-gallon aquarium in her library and stocked it with one betta fish and three tiny neon tetra schooling fish with a PITC grant, researching on YouTube how to care for them. She has a laminated sheet with facts about the fish next to the tank, as well as a basket with books about fish. The aquarium is a calming presence, she says, and sometimes students who’ve had a rough start to their day pop by the library to watch the little swimmers.
“I hope it inspires [kids] to be interested in learning more…and an appreciation for nature and to slow down,” Uehling says. “There’s a lot of talk about social/emotional learning this year, especially coming after the pandemic, and I feel like this is a great segue into that.”