Seven Animal-Based Authentic Learning Experience Ideas

541563From family pets and wild animals to toys, stuffed animals, and media portrayals, animals are a central part of every child’s landscape. What is it that makes animals so appealing to children, and how can you use that interest to help children learn?

In Connecting Animals and Children in Early Childhood—our latest release, available now—Patty Born Selly examines this very topic. She presents the reasons why children should interact and connect with real animals, and she identifies the rich learning that results. The books provides heaps of foundational support and practical ideas to create authentic experiences that bring children and all kinds of species of animals together—including many adaptations if live animals are not permitted in your setting.

Today, we’re sharing several ideas that can help children form strong, meaningful bonds with animals.

Animals often provide the perfect motivation to help children share stories, feelings, ideas, and more. As an educator, you can use children’s natural attraction to animals to help inspire art and literacy activities. Since children love to talk about, read about, and ask questions about animals, there is no limit to the number of ways that animals can help children gain skills and practice in language, literacy, and arts. These authentic experiences prompt creative expression and help children develop empathy, compassion, and an awareness of species other than themselves. Here are some ideas to try in your program.

  • Make “animal stories” a part of your routine in the classroom. Every child has at least one favorite story to tell about an animal. Invite each child to bring in a photo of their pet or a pet they wish they had, and share about that animal. Encouraging them to share their words and experiences with real animals will deepen their connections to those animals. It also builds on literacy and language learning by engaging them in dialogue with their peers and inspiring them to articulate their feelings. For a longer-term project, invite them to write stories in an “animal journal” that chronicles the life and adventures of their own pets, their friends’ pets, or other familiar animals, such as backyard birds or squirrels. There are many ways you can approach this. Make talking about the animals a normal part of every day. Ask the children questions about the images and animals. Even if they can’t yet answer you clearly, they will most certainly be thinking and making connections.
  • Encourage children to write about different animal species. They might make up fantasy stories and write them down, or dictate to you or another adult, who can record their words on pages to accompany pictures the children draw. For an experience like this to really build connections with animals and deepen children’s understandings, plan to really take your time. Start by brainstorming a list of animals together. This list can be built for days leading up to the start of the activity, as children will add to it, be inspired by the shared time brainstorming, and get new ideas at home, too.
  • Invite children to choose a favorite animal. Offer plenty of pictures, books, and other images that children can look at to pique their curiosity about animals. Invite each child to spend as much time as he needs considering which animal to choose for this project. Once each child has chosen an animal, create a list and post it prominently for the whole class to see.
  • Encourage the children to immerse themselves in research. Depending on the ages of the children, this “research” might be simply looking at pictures online or at the local library, or perhaps visiting a library and checking out materials that the children can take home. Other examples of research are conducting personal interviews with family or friends, and watching the actual animal in a setting the child can visit. Invite them to think also about aspects such as the animal’s habitat needs, food and where in the world it might be found. Help the children combine everything they have learned into posters, scrapbooks, or other displays to be shared with the class. They may enjoy “presenting their research” to one another.
  • In determining where a favorite animal lives, go beyond simply “the zoo.” If a child chooses an animal that doesn’t live in your region, say, a zebra, research and find out together where zebras really live. Perhaps post a large world map, and help the children locate the regions in which their animal is found. Invite the children to write or draw a story about the place you researched, or an animal that lives there.
  • Create a book about animals. Have each child draw one page in the book. Encourage individual expression, since children may wish to create realistic drawings or fantasy drawings. Under their picture, the children can label their animal and write one or two things they love about it. You can make color copies, bind the pages together with ribbon or twine, and provide one book to each child. A project like this can also build community in the classroom, providing rich material for discussion and opportunities for children to share stories. Children love to talk about their favorite animals with each other, and creating a book together helps children share responsibility and pride in creating something as a group that will be a shared treasure.
  • If you’ve collected natural materials on a field trip, invite the class to make a group collage, or allow the children to work individually on dimensional projects related to the site or the animals that live there. Consider printing your photos from the day and having the children give you the captions. Create a large class poster or photo book about the field trip.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Connecting Animals and Children in Early Childhood is a terrific resource. It 

  • Examines the basic qualities that make animals so appealing to children
  • Explains how animals impact children’s cognitive, social-emotional, and inter- and intrapersonal development and growth
  • Introduces authentic experiences with animals that are supportive of children’s understanding and learning, and respectful to both animals and people
  • Provides real-life examples of how to bring animals into your classroom with suggestions for planning, ideas for finding the right pet, and resources for making experiences meaningful, relevant, and joyful for children

Patty Born Selly is executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. As the founder of Small Wonders, an educational consulting company offering services to schools, faith-based communities, and other organizations, Patty has developed hundreds of classes to help programs incorporate nature, science, and green education. She is also the author of Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth.

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