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Meaningful Animal Encounters in Preschool

In over a year of monthly blog posts about bringing nature to preschoolers, we have yet to discuss animals. Whether they are classroom pets or encountered in the wild, animals bring a new, welcome layer to children’s education. In their World of Wonder conference workshop, Jill Canelli and Rina Zampieron from the Massachusetts Audubon Society presented a number of different ways for teachers to foster those experiences for young children.

Caring for animals, whether as classroom pets or in the wild, teaches young children responsibility. They feel purpose and pride in feeding the school’s chickens, refilling bird feeders or helping to change the water in the frog’s tank. When children care for an animal, they also develop empathy for living creatures that helps them better understand their own and their peers’ feelings and needs. Finally, animals provide comfort to children. Holding small animals, like hamsters, can be soothing and watching fish swim in a tank can be calming.

Structured Animal Encounters

Most people think of classroom pets when they think of introducing children to animals, but Canelli and Zampieron pointed out that there are actually two categories of animal encounters. One type of encounter, of which caring for classroom pets is an example, are structured encounters. Structured encounters include caring for farm and classroom animals. At Wildwood Nature School, we feed the chickens and gather their eggs to understand our connection to other animals. Zoos and private science programs may bring animals to programs without the space to care for their own and talk to the children about the animal’s habits and needs.

Citizen science research is another easy way for teachers to structure children’s interactions with animals. In citizen science projects, professional scientists collaborate with the general public to gather data and research on a much wider scale than could be done individually. Citizen scientists might be asked to count and categorize backyard birds or gather and test soil samples. It can be difficult to find activities accessible to preschoolers, but PBS Kids maintains a database of ideas at Another option is to take the general idea of an established citizen science project, but to adapt it for the developmental level of young children. The class would not be fully participating in the project, but would still benefit from their own investigations.

Unstructured Animal Encounters

At Wildwood Nature School, we also have a lot of unstructured animal encounters that result from serendipitous sightings in the forest. We may come across a snake slithering across the trail or a newt sunning itself on a rock. Slugs, snails, insects, caterpillars and spiders may not seem like the most exciting animal encounters to adults, but to children they are wondrous and new. Sometimes the encounters are not with the animals themselves, but with evidence that they have passed through – nests, footprints, leftover food, scat. (For more information on watching for and documenting animal evidence with children, you may want to check out the March 2018 post “Winter Walks with Preschoolers.”)

These serendipitous encounters offer launching points for further activities outside and inside the classroom. Journaling and field guides provide quick and easy immediate ways to extend children’s learning. When we encounter animals in the forest, it always launches a series of questions. Tracks in the snow two years ago led to a quest to follow them to find the deer’s nesting spot. Twenty minutes of watching a slug move and eat last year led children to notice that they actually have 4 antennae. A quick search of a field guide told us that slugs actually have one set of antennae to help them smell and a second set for eyespots.

Other serendipitous encounters can launch art projects, experiments and long-term investigations. Days of coming across spiders and their webs this fall led to months of studying the creatures. We sought out the different types of webs spiders make, designed an experiment to determine if spiders have feelings and learned about their life cycles, among other things. Last spring a close observation of an abandoned bird nest inspired the children to try to create their own nests with dirt, water, grass and straw. When the nests dried out and disintegrated the following day, we just had to investigate how birds get their nests to hold together over a long period of time and then make adjustments to our own nest building.

The benefits to children of animal encounters are many, and their introduction does not need to take much space or teacher time to facilitate. Small animals – even the insects in a hard-scape playground –provide big opportunities for young children. Teachers open to such encounters can foster wonder and creativity in their students.

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