Kids in classrooms can sometimes be like hamsters stuck in empty cages. Our minds are built to handle a specific type of complexity, and we feel satisfied when we're in it.
One aspect of the environment that we're built for is that it be filled with living things: plants and animals and fungi. That is, we're built to find animals and plants interesting.
Biology, of course, grows out of this innate love — this biophilia, as a few authors have christened it.
We're built to crave being around living things, but schools (and much of modern society) largely divorces us from it.
Our basic plan:
We bring in as many animals & plants to our classroom (and to our school property) as possible. We find ways to put kids in contact with these living things, we encourage the kids to observe and pose questions about the living things, and we help answer those questions.
Our grade schoolers learn as much complex biology as many students learn throughout K-12.
Our students lose their "gross!" response (also an innate reaction!) as they encounter insects and worms.
Our students feel calmer.
Our students develop relationships with some of the animals, and from that become enchanted with the natural world.
If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:
Walking into our classrooms, you might notice the surprising number of plants that line the walls of the room. There are grow-lights galore, and a surprising number of hydroponic systems (the better for seeing roots, and being clear on how plants grow).
You might spot students taking time-lapse photos of a bed of mushrooms growing (to be eaten in a later lunch!).
Lots of schools have class pets, and we should pursue these, too: fish and hermit crabs and parakeets and gerbils. We might also pursue some of the ickier critters: worms and praying mantises and beetles; snakes and frogs and salamanders. Gross! shuts kids out of experiences that could support a vibrant intellectualism: helping kids desensitize to the slimy and creepy-crawly is part of our job.
I'd love for the school to have a chicken coop outside, with kids in charge of taking care of the birds.
For all of these animals and plants, we'd have kids make observations: drawing, especially, but also measuring growth and writing down behavior. (This can be done in blocks of independent work time.) We can then encourage kids to pose questions about what they'd like to understand: why does the gerbil get scared when I approach its cage? why do the mushrooms grow better away from the sunlight?
Having posed these questions (and perhaps shared them to our Questions Board), kids can start looking for answers, through Wikipedia, Zoobooks, The Encyclopedia of Life, and so on. Those questions which kids aren't able to answer on their own, but would like to have answered, are prime material for the teacher to have an Imaginative-Education-inspired circle time about.
Some specific questions:
- What's the least number of animals/plants/fungi we'd like to start with?
- What's the greatest vision for animals/plants/fungi we'd like to aim for?
- Beyond the animals/plants/fungi that I've listed here, what other ones could we put in?
- Lots of kids and teachers (myself included) have allergies to mammals. Does this automatically rule out having any in our classrooms, or are there clever ways around this?
- What kinds of safety issues do we need to talk about, if we bring animals into the school?