Scaly, Creepy, Crawly and Wonderful Visitors
Bringing wild animals into the classroom for study
When I was teaching preschool, I frequently brought in wild visitors for the children to observe. The secretary at the school got in the habit of checking out whatever I was carrying when I walked in the door. If it was a large jar or aquarium or other critter container her reaction was quite startling
“What is it? What is it? What are you bringing in here now? Get out of my office!!” She would shriek this while scrambling to the farthest corner of the room.
I would innocently hold up the container and say, “No worries, it’s just a small snake.” Or: “No worries, it’s just a couple spiders.”
She was not mollified in the least.
But my children were delighted. Thanks to my own interest in everything under the sun and the children who had moved up into the older grades, we had a revolving door of wild visitors. We were able to purchase a large, plastic terrarium on wheels for the classroom and we kept an assortment of animals in it for observation. The older children knew that I would always welcome and care for any small animal they caught. They were also welcome to visit the classroom and observe the animals and I helped them look up facts and information. It became a school wide project.
You don’t have to have a fancy terrarium though, because the animals won’t be with you long. You can get small plastic aquariums or terrariums very easily at any pet store or Walmart, etc. I picked up several over the years at thrift stores for very little money.
It is very important when allowing lizards, insects or snakes to come into the classroom or the home that the children understand these are wild animals, not pets. They are not here for us to play with like the bunnies, but are just here to visit so we can learn about them. After a few days we made a great ceremony of turning them loose in a suitable habitat. “So, they could go back to their lives” as one child expressed it so perfectly.
The school where I taught was in a rural area, so we had ample opportunities to catch horned toads, lizards, wolf spiders, tarantulas and small snakes. We also caught grasshoppers, stick insects, orb spiders, moths, caterpillars, etc.
Make sure you take the time to learn about the animal’s diet and other needs so that when they are returned to the wild, they will be healthy and able to continue their lives. For example, horned toads cannot just eat any insect, they have to have access to ants. The formic acid in ants is critical for the horned toads’ nutritional needs.
Every year I made a point of bringing in garter snakes and doing a project with all the grades on how to tell the difference between a non-poisonous and a poisonous snake. In Southern Colorado the only real poisonous snakes are the rattle snakes. They are the only viper in the area and they have a distinctly triangular head. My goal was to make sure they knew to look for the triangular head and not just the tail with the rattles. Very young rattlesnakes don’t always have distinct rattles the first year so I felt it was important for the children to tell the difference. Both bull snakes and garter snakes have oval shaped heads. My hope was to not only keep the children safe, but to cut down on how many snakes were needlessly killed. Snakes are very important to the environment because they eat so many pests like mice. Bull snakes have even been known to eat rattlesnakes.
I also brought in a couple black widow spiders when I could catch them so that the children would know what they looked like. I wanted to be sure they knew not to ever touch them and to tell an adult if they saw one. Black widows are quite poisonous for small children and are very common in rural areas.
Another fun project was raising butterflies. There are several companies where you can order painted lady butterfly larvae (caterpillars). They send explicit instructions on how to raise the larvae. The children participated in the care of the caterpillars and watched them turn into cocoons. The day the first cocoon hatched and we saw the first butterfly was so exciting! After all the cocoons hatched, we would choose a nice sunny spring day and take the butterflies out to the garden and turn them loose. We learned so much from this project. There are some beautiful children’s books available on butterflies to enhance this project and it fit in perfectly with planting our spring flower gardens and watching our tulips bloom.
The animals were brought in to study and learn and enjoy. People are more likely to take care of the natural world around them if they have a personal connection.
The animals also encouraged the children to look in books and on the internet for more information. We learned a lot of vocabulary and a lot about the land around us by studying the animals in our care.
Our poor secretary never quite forgave me for all the scares, but her daughter grew up pretty fearless; I like to think that is partly because she was in a classroom learning about all the scaly, creepy, crawly animals we found.