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Classroom pets: when animals are let loose in schools

Children are engaging with an experiential learning approach that can have a lasting impact

Most of us are familiar with guide dogs for people who are blind. Companion dogs for children with autism and other learning disabilities are also becoming increasingly common. But aside from the wonderful work done by these highly trained service dogs, there is another trend that is bringing animals and children together.

Initiated by charities such as Dogs Trust and Festina Lente, more and more schools are now inviting animals – dogs and ponies in particular– into classrooms and school gardens to interact with pupils. To find out how the children respond to these initiatives, The Irish Times went along to two schools when the animals visited.

The two Shetland ponies nibbling at the grass in the enclosed garden at St Colmcille’s primary school in Ballybrack, Co Dublin look like they are in paradise on a sunny morning in May. Catherine Wynne, the home school community liaison officer, organises for the ponies to visit from their home at Festina Lente equestrian centre in Bray, Co Wicklow.

Three children from sixth class take turns spending about 20 minutes with each Shetland pony, brushing or braiding her as she eats the grass. “We are focusing on sixth-class children to prepare them for the transition to secondary school,” explains Wynne.

Siofra Hayes Moriarty from Festina Lente says that learning how to connect with Shetland ponies brings children back to their own feelings. “It’s a form of social and emotional learning. The ponies give you minute-by-minute feedback. They won’t follow the children if they are aggressive towards them. If your energy is calm, the ponies will be calm back to them. It helps the children understand themselves better.”

Hayes Moriarty says that while the Shetland ponies at Festina Lente don’t get ridden, they do a lot of work. “They are great with wheelchair users and people who are nervous around animals,” she says.

Watching how the children from St Colmcille’s interact with the ponies is calming in itself. Ciaran Reddin (12) says that being with the ponies calms him down. Colm Schofield (12) talks about other animals the school has embraced. “We got chickens and I had to clean up the chicken coop. We had CCTV camera to record the births of the chickens but we did see one live birth,” he says. The school also adopted fish from the Sealife aquarium in Bray and the children had to record the temperature of the aquarium each day, clean the tank and feed the fish.

St Colmcille’s School principal, Aidan Boyle, says this form of learning is in contrast to most school work. “Everything has to be quantified now in terms of numeracy and literary, but you can’t quantify this. It’s a quality experience and we use it for children with bereavement issues, those lacking in confidence and to make school more attractive for those who might be missing days at school.” Boyle says that teachers have noticed a huge improvement in the moods of the children who engage with the ponies. “These children don’t get a lot of time to themselves and they are almost in a daze when they are grooming the ponies,” he adds.

Researchers have found that animals in schools can promote language, imagination and self-reflection – especially in young children. When used as mascots or pets within the classroom, guinea pigs, gerbils or even fish can also motivate children to engage more in school work. Some teachers also integrate the classroom pet into lessons about science, geography and mathematics.

Wynne says the children also benefit from the teamwork of interacting with animals. “We also bring some children from the school to Festina Lente for equine-facilitated education and assisted learning programmes and there is a huge difference in their behaviour at school and at home afterwards,” says Wynne. “These programmes benefit all children but they are especially good for children with autism spectrum disorder [ASD] or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]. They are so calm after doing the classes,” she adds.

Betty O’Connor is a secondary school teacher who teaches teenagers in the adolescent unit of St John of God’s Hospital, Stillorgan, Co Dublin. The Shetland ponies from Festina Lente visited as part of the teenagers’ social, personal and health education (SPHE) programme. “We prepared for their visit by learning about how to care for horses and their sleeping, eating and drinking habits and then the young people were able to groom and stroke them and bring them around the grounds of the hospital,” says O’Connor. The programme was held for two hours per week over eight weeks. “I think it was good for their self-esteem and those who had access to horses in the past were able to share their knowledge with the other students.”

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