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How animals are playing a vital role in school curriculum

PUBLISHED: 16:31 23 March 2015 | UPDATED: 16:31 23 March 2015

Hugo Wilson and Diana Strange with Poppy at Seaford College in West Sussex

Hugo Wilson and Diana Strange with Poppy at Seaford College in West Sussex

Ian Tuttle

Animals play a vital role in a child’s development. From teaching a sense of responsibility and respect for life to offering companionship and affection, animals enhance our lives.

Research in the United States showed 40% of children choose pet companionship when feeling down. They seek out their pets when feeling tired, upset, scared or lonely.

“Being around animals is extremely good for children,” says Dr Harvey Markovitch, editor of The Archives of Disease in Childhood. “They’re good for morale, and teach children about relationships and about the needs of another living being – learning to care for a pet helps them to learn how to care for people.”

Children’s author Anna Wilson agrees. “Animals teach children so much. They teach them responsibility, mucking in to walk the dog, feeding, cleaning them out, and making sure they are healthy and looked-after well,” she says.

The Pets As Therapy charity supports children through its Read2Dogs scheme. Research shows that children can be nervous and stressed when reading to others in a group. When a PAT dog enters the group the child becomes less stressed and less self conscious. Before long the children are looking forward to the reading experience as they are going to read to their new friend, the PAT dog.

Poppy, the German Short Haired Pointer, supports the pastoral team at Seaford College in Petworth, West Sussex, and has had a lot of success in helping students to open up and relax.

Diana Strange, Director of Care and Welfare and Poppy’s owner, said: “Pupils find Poppy very soothing. She’s very therapeutic, pupils will often come and find her when they’re stressed, and she really helps to calm them down, as one pupil said, ‘you don’t have to answer to a dog’.’’

Year 9 student Hugo Wilson, who suffers from homesickness, goes on a weekly walk with Poppy. Hugo said: “At home, we have a Rhodesian Ridgeback, Elsa, who we walk every day. She always cheers me up. After my first two weeks’ boarding, I became homesick. I missed my family. I missed Elsa. Then I met Mrs Strange, who introduced me to Poppy.

“Poppy really helps me to relax, and Mrs Strange and I can talk about anything. Poppy helped me bridge the gap between home and school. I really enjoy boarding now.”

James Passam, deputy head, said: “The pastoral team offer something truly unique at Seaford. I believe that every houseparent should have a dog.”

The CCF at Seaford has its own dog, Hastings, a black Labrador. CCF members visit Hastings during exams, and stroke him to help them calm their nerves.

Dorset House School in Pulborough, West Sussex, also have a dog – Mylo the black Labrador – who lives in the boarding house. He spent his early years with the charity Canine Partners training to assist people with disabilities.

Heading of boarding, Jason Marconi says: “What better tonic is there for a little bout of home sickness than a cuddle with a dog? We are sure that Mylo has played his part in seeing the boarding numbers nearly double over the past year.”

At Handcross Park in Haywards Heath in West Sussex, children look after an organic garden which includes a brood of chickens. The school has just added two piglets which the children will help look after. Children from nursery to year 8 also look after the school’s pet guinea pigs.

There are a variety of pets at Sutton Valence Preparatory School in Maidstone, Kent, with everything from stick insects to chickens.

Having animals brings science topics alive at the school. Reproduction is studied through the guinea pig breeding programme. Comparing animal diets to humans aided understanding of the need for a balanced and varied intake. The wormery provides organic fertiliser for the gardening club’s crops, which also help feed the animals. When cleaning and handling the animals, and whilst gardening, they learn about hygiene.

The year 6 pupils and their year 5 helpers develop a sense of responsibility by making a commitment to complete their duties, in all weathers, for the whole of their term’s assignment. They pass on their knowledge explaining to the younger pupils how to care for and nurture the animals.

Pupils at The Hawthorns School in Bletchingley, Surrey, have access to a smallholding adjacent to the school. Owned by Elaine Forsyth, head of the pre-prep, the smallholding includes horses, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl and quails, while the school lake is home to ducks and a pair of swans.

Children enjoy a wide range of activities with the animals, whether it is going on a ‘Billy Goat Gruff walk’ through the school woods and over the footbridge with a goat, watching sheep shearing and horses being shod, or observing eggs hatching in their classrooms. Each spring, Mrs Forsyth takes on a couple of orphan lambs, and the children are invited to come and bottle feed them.

The animals are linked into various areas of the curriculum, including science, when children learn about animal habitats and adaptation to different environments, and literacy in the early years, when the animals are included in their phonics lessons, for example learning ‘g’ for ‘goat’. Animal care and pet grooming are also included as a popular part of holiday activity camps.

“As well as gaining confidence around animals, the children gain a much greater understanding of life-cycles or how animals have adapted to different environments by seeing it in real life, rather than simply learning about it in books,” said Mrs Forsyth.

“All the children relish the time they spend with the animals and it is a very special part of their school experience.”

***

5 things animals teach children:

• Communication: Children learn the subtle cues their pets give them to indicate their feelings. They can later apply this lesson to human interaction because they are more attuned to watching for body posture.

• Empathy: Children often become curious about the emotions their pets feel. This curiosity will extend itself to others.

• Nurturing skills: If properly supervised by adults, a child learns how to take care of another living being, and take pleasure in keeping the pet healthy and happy.

• Confidence: Children go through life under constant evaluation. They are rated by their behaviour, grades and athletic performance. Pets have no such expectations; they’re delighted that the child is with them.

• Resilience to change: Children who undergo traumatic experiences often cope better when they have a pet to confide in.

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