Children love animals and there are a range of benefits and learning experiences to be gained from keeping animals in early education services. Animals provide a great opportunity for children to learn about responsibility, through handling, feeding and cleaning them and they can also be a valuable source of inspiration for the curriculum.
However, there are many things to be mindful of when keeping animals in early learning settings and we've got the rundown.
Choosing the right pet
If your service has never had a pet before, it is important that you discuss the possibility of keeping an animal with the families in your service and involve them in the process.
This ensures that parents are able to give feedback about the decision as well as provide you with information about any allergies or phobias their child may have. All of this information must be taken into consideration before you decide on the right animal for your service, and it allows an opportunity for children to be involved in the decision-making process too, giving them limited options to vote for is recommended.
Unless there is an educator at the service willing to take the pet home at night, it may be better to choose a pet that is low maintenance such as goldfish or reptiles. It's also important for the educators at your service to discuss the ramifications of bringing a pet into the centre, and to consider any potential negatives – for example egg hatching programs are now considered inhumane by many with PETA advising against them in educational settings.
Before going ahead with adopting or purchasing an animal for your centre be sure to ask these questions:
- Who will pay for the care and upkeep of the animal, including feeding, health care, and cleaning?
- How will the pet be cared for on weekends and during service closure periods?
- What theft prevention methods will you have in place?
- What physical space is available in the service? Is it adequate for the pet you are thinking of?
- Are all educators and families happy with the decision to get a pet?
- What time will be available throughout the day to care for the pet or will educators be asked to give up some personal time for this?
- Are there any children or educators at your service who have allergies or phobias?
- What changes to your service policies and procedures need to be considered? For example, your hand washing policy will need to be updated to include washing hands after having contact with the pet.
- Some animals, such as lizards, turtles, snakes, spiders and tropical fish may not be appropriate for the early childhood education and care setting. Check with a veterinarian if you are unsure and also with the local health department for regulations and advice regarding pets in childcare. Sometimes a license is required for keeping certain animals.
- What are the health and safety risks?
- Have you done a cost/benefit analysis? Pets have many advantages but require financial expenditure.
More suitable animals may include goldfish, hermit crabs, stick insects, mice, or rats. All of these animals are relatively low maintenance and can be left safely over a weekend if they are provided with sufficient food and water. Ask the children to select names for them as a fun activity.
Other issues to consider when keeping animals
It is essential at all times to be conscious of the wellbeing and safety of both children and the animals in the service. Young children often don't understand that they are hurting or frightening an animal, which can result in a normally placid pet reacting aggressively in fear or pain.
Other things to be aware of and avoid:
- Preventing children ingesting or touching faeces or dirt that contains animal faeces or fleas.
- Potential allergies. Many children are allergic to animals and may have symptoms when they are around them. Care also needs to be taken with children who have food allergies as some pet foods contain common allergens such as nuts and seafood.
- Dog and cat bites are the most reported types of injuries caused by pets. The tearing and puncture wounds they produce can cause serious infections.
- Parasites that may be transferred by pets, such as ringworm (which is a fungus), worms, fleas and ticks.
- Animals can get sick and die, so ensure you have a plan in place for how to effectively communicate this with the children if it happens.
Alternatives to keeping a pet
Pets aren't appropriate for every learning service and if your service decides against keeping an animal then there are other interesting ways to introduce animals to children. For example, you could take children on an excursion to a a wildlife park or regularly explore the outdoor area of your service or local park to see what creatures can be found such as birds, snails and butterflies.
You could also invite visitors and programs in your service such as mobile farms, reptile keepers and wildlife carers. Another option is to ask families to bring in any interesting pets they may have at home for a visit that are small and contained, such as mice, lizards and snakes.
Advantageous but a commitment
The bottom line is that keeping animals in early childhood settings can offer many benefits to children's development, but they do require work, commitment and cost. So, if you are considering a pet make sure you do your research and think about all the logistics, time and financial implications carefully in order to be sufficiently prepared and ensure the safety and happiness of the animal itself, in addition to the children and educators.