Fun and Fascinating School Creatures

Originally from my column “A Stone’s Throw” in the South Pasadena Review (June 2014)

Throughout the school year, students learn best by experience. This is especially true of live creatures in the classroom; and I’m not talking about the kids.

It’s good to study about the world from a book; but bring it to life to observe and touch and the learning increases that much more.

When I was growing up my parents would travel with me, making the most of my time away from school. They would say “You learn more when you do.”

In the same vein, my kids and I continue to “do.” Beyond going places, we also “do” at home. Currently we live in a zoo/laboratory, or so it feels like such. We have 2 spunky boys (Thing 1 and Thing 2), a bouncy dog (Bree), 2 hardy water frogs raised from tadpoles (Hop and Hoppity), soon to be released butterflies, ladybugs in their pupa stage and praying mantises in their habitat getting ready to live in our garden. And I must admit it involves a little money, a little time and a lot of fun.

Living things can respond to your actions and sounds. They eat, have antics, poo, molt, hang upside-down and evolve. You can spend a day together and learn its habits. Now that’s education!

In the South Pasadena elementary schools, we have rabbits, ducklings, chickens and turtles. Some teachers introduce their classes to hairy tarantulas that are fed live insects, frogs that are placed in makeshift ponds, and caterpillars that miraculously metamorphose into butterflies released to the skies.

Dawn Tull, a 4th and 5th grade teacher at Monterey Hills Elementary has in her class (and will have in her home over the summer): 3 guinea pigs, a gecko, tree frogs, fire belly toads and an insect habitat – Oh my! “The reason I have animals is… to reinforce all the eco system studies we do.”

Even at the middle school, the library has two birds and an escape artist hamster. An assortment of insects and reptiles like snakes and lizards also find their way into our academic environment – it’s natural!

When Colette Carbonare, a second grader at Arroyo Vista was asked what she learned about the ducklings, she said, “Whoever takes a duck has to take two because they get lonely.” Apparently this is a crucial element in a ducky’s social existence, but may not be fun for the “lucky” parent who gets to clean twice the mess.

This brings us to the question: “where do all the creatures go,” now that the traditional academic season comes to a close? Like Pete Seeger’s old political folk song in the 60s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” the creatures come full circle.

They get adopted into student’s homes everywhere. Teachers find they have new pets for the summer. And some get released into nature to continue the life cycle.

Wherever they go, somehow, when the new school year rolls around again, future generations of creatures find their way back into the classroom and into the minds and hearts of those fortunate enough to behold and enjoy them.

To try some of these in your own home, borrow a pet from your child’s classroom for the weekend or summer. Or go to insectlore.com (for caterpillars/butterflies and ladybug larvae), fascinations.com (for an ant farm and praying mantises) and growafrog.com (for see-thru tadpoles). Or to keep the critters contained in a story, try a fun tale about “Humphrey,” life from the perspective of a classroom hamster.

Whatever you do, make sure you “DO” something. Get out of your comfort zone and get dirty. Those precious years of wonder and discovery tend to fade over time. So don’t miss it!

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