By: Sarah Ortmann
Over the past school year I had the opportunity to travel to other Montessori schools to complete my required observation hours for training. One of my most memorable observations was of a very young girl sitting in front of a beautiful fish tank and staring into it for about thirty minutes. Her finger softly traced the outside of the tank as it followed the fish as they swam. Her eyes watched the bubbles as they surfaced and her ears took in the soft hum of the filter. Even as a young boy came up to speak with her, she politely signaled for him to leave and continued her observation. I was amazed by her deep concentration on the tiny animals. She did not gaze blankly into the tank but instead her eyes were full of life and light as she admired what lay in front of her.
The presence of animals in the prepared environment not only promotes deep concentration during times of observation but also introduces children to biology and zoology. As children observe the animals they are gaining a deeper understanding of the diversity of living things in our world. In our prepared environment we have a variety of vertebrates represented including a fish, amphibian, bird, and mammal. There is also a cricket container that keeps up to 30 crickets. Over the last three weeks there has been an incubator full of chicken eggs accompanied by a detailed book on different poultry breeds. Last week we were all fortunate enough to watch the chickens hatch and we will continue to watch them grow and develop. Children, who are keen observers, notice every detail of each animal and are eager to ask questions about them. These questions lead to discussions on modes of movement, camouflage, growth and adaptation.
The children are also responsible for the care of the animals. Each morning the bird needs fresh water, the rabbit’s litter box needs to be cleaned, and the crickets need to be fed to the frogs. Many children ask why the litter box needs to be changed everyday or why we only put one pinch of flakes in the fishbowl. They listen intently to my brief explanation of why the rabbit has a litter box or a tale of what happens to the water when there is too much food in the bowl. These types of questions always return to the fact that as human beings we are responsible for the care of the animals in our environment. As the children learn to take care of the animals in the prepared environment, they are also learning the important role that humans have to take care of all living things in our natural world.
The animals also provide an opportunity for children to become comfortable with animals that they may not have the opportunity to interact with otherwise. Many children are amazed to see a live tree frog so close to them. Other children believe crickets are gross and that they should be stepped on, until they find themselves staring into the cricket house and excitedly telling the other children that the cricket ate the potato. While living with these animals, all of the children must learn the language that the animals speak by observing their habitats and actions. If the bird bites at you it means that she does not want to be picked up, and if the rabbit runs away it means that you are petting her too hard. Through these interactions with the animals the children learn to be respectful and gentle with the animals and with others.
One of the most important things that I have learned from my experience observing children is the vital role that these animals play in their daily lives. These animals provide an opportunity for the children to grow intellectually by asking questions about animal behavior, habitat, and care. They also allow the children to grow socially by exploring how other creatures communicate and the importance of respectfully interacting with others.
If you have any animals at home I strongly encourage allowing your children to participate in their care. Even a young child can fill the cats water bowl or help to keep the dog toys in one location at the end of the day. Involve your child in learning what other types of food your guinea pig enjoys eating or if there are other types of fish that can be added to your fish tank. Take the time with your children to observe your animals at home and appreciate their unique physical characteristics and behavioral traits. If you choose not to have animals at your home be confident in knowing that the animals at OakHaven are a big part of your child’s life.