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Teacher holding a ferret for students to see at Sammamish Montessori School

Class pets teach responsibility, empathy and even geography

Be it fish, gerbil, snake or mouse pets help children learn

Did you know that you need to scatter gerbils’ feed to keep them stimulated and happy? Or that they need deep bedding to burrow and, often, a much bigger cage than many think? These are just a few fun facts children can learn from having “class pets.”

In my 29 years as a Montessori teacher, I’ve had Guinea pigs, hamsters, a cockatiel, mice, gerbils, fish, and a cat in my classroom. This year, we have two gerbils: Snips and Zoom. We have two because, another fun fact, gerbils need and thrive on companionship. Kinda like humans, no?

Beyond being cute, entertaining, and sometimes cuddly, these animals provide emotional support and help teach my young students a sense of responsibility and empathy. In fact, they may be better teachers and friends than you might realize.

Sammamish Montessori student looking at a small animal held in a teacher's hands

Emotional support

At the beginning of the year, during school drop-off, for example, classroom pets can be an incredible comfort and part of an established routine when children are dealing with separation anxiety. The same goes throughout the year, whenever a child may just not be having the best day. Sometimes, I’ve simply had to say, “Come and see the gerbils,” and it’s been enough to cheer them up. I’ve also seen the animals help more reserved children open up and make connections with their peers while they are all interacting with the animals.

Care and feeding the class pet

My students have always loved learning how to take care of the animals. Due to licensing regulations and for the animals’ safety, only I can clean their habitat. Still, my students are keen to watch and learn—for example, I show them how not to remove all of our gerbils’ bedding as it’s important to maintain their scent, especially where they burrow.

The children are encouraged to check Snips and Zoom’s water bottle, scatter their food, and bring cardboard rolls from home for them to chew. They are so happy to contribute to the gerbils’ well-being, having learned that chewing helps them preserve their teeth, and digging and burrowing are how they hide their food, tunnel, and stay stimulated.

Sammamish Montessori Classroom Pet

The Cycle of Life

In a Montessori classroom, beyond emphasizing an animal’s care and feeding needs, we also discuss its life cycle, from birth to death. We dive into sciences, including zoology and the five classifications of vertebrates. The students understand that gerbils are mammals—again, like us! They breathe air through their lungs, have hair, feed their babies milk, and are born alive, unlike other species, like fish, reptiles, and amphibians, who lay eggs that must incubate before they hatch.

While it’s important to learn about how animals are born and thrive, in Montessori school, we also help children process the end of the life cycle. Often, the loss of a classroom pet is a child’s first experience with death. I’ve handled this complex subject by explaining the natural life cycle and when it’s time, placing the pet in a tissue-lined box, encouraging the children to draw pictures, write letters, and do whatever they feel is important to leave with the animal before burial. This gives a sense of understanding and closure for losing our friend.

Geography

Our class pets have also “taught” geography to my students. As a daily subject, geography is integrated into all topics of study in a Montessori classroom. I discuss, for example, an animal’s native habitat. For example, when reviewing a map of Asia with my students, I’ve had children pop up and say things like, “There’s China and Mongolia. That’s where gerbils live!”

Language Development: Vocabulary and Creative Writing

Reading to children is a well-known way to broaden their vocabulary—but so is learning about animals, especially those they are exposed to. The animals add relatable, tangible substance! “Burrow,” “habitat,” “Mongolia,” “scatter,” “rodent”! The more words a child can learn with context, the more likely they will retain that knowledge. It’s not about rote memorization but, instead, about lived experience. Having a large vocabulary helps children think and learn about the world.

What’s more, the animals help my kindergarten children explore and enjoy creative writing activities and illustrations. The children often draw pictures of our class pet, like ones of the gerbil, and use phonetic spelling to write their names and practice descriptive writing. It’s an amazing opportunity to teach adjectives. “Furry,” “fast,” “cute”…you see what I mean. What an interactive way to learn parts of speech—all thanks to a couple of happy gerbils!

Sparking a Family’s Interest

Nowadays, parents are busy working full-time jobs and managing a household, their kids’ schoolwork, and extracurricular activities. The idea of pets is sometimes not a thought or a reality to add to their home. A classroom pet is often the first and sometimes only pet a child experiences.

While caring for these pets is ultimately my responsibility as the teacher, I allow families (parental supervision required) to take the pets home over breaks. Many families over the years have had such great experiences interacting and caring for these pets in their homes that they ended up adding pets to their own families!

All in all, animals can add an abundance of joy to a classroom environment, but for teachers, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be all in! It’s important to consider not only school breaks but also summer vacation and remember that proper animal care is paramount for the animal’s well-being and modeling for the children. As teachers, we have our hands full, and adding a classroom pet is no small feat but, in my experience, is worth the manifold benefits.

About the author

Sammamish Montessori Teacher Robyn AtkinsRobyn Atkins in an AMS (American Montessori Society) accredited lead teacher with The Sammamish Montessori School. She has over 29-years of Montessori classroom experience and 7+ years with Sammamish Montessori. The Sammamish Montessori School (SMS) in Redmond, WA, was founded in 1977 by Joan Starling with just six preschoolers. Over the last 45 years, SMS has provided Montessori education to over 5,000 students. SMS has grown into one of the largest Montessori schools in the Pacific Northwest for 18-months to 6-year-old children. Check out the website for more details.

About the Author

Robyn Atkins