“What children learn in the company of animals exerts an enduring influence on the attitudes, values, and emotions that define us as human beings.” —Mary Jalongo, PhD, Salamanders to Shetland Ponies: Companion Animals and Young Children, in Early Childhood Education Journal, 2004.
When developmental psychologists espouse the value of companion animals for young children, thoughts of fur and paws probably come to mind more than feathers and claws. However, a trio of Silkie Bantam chickens has fulfilled the role of companion pets in East Room more than anyone imagined. The first few days of the school year in East PM involved not only getting to know new children, but also meeting some small, feathered friends. A half dozen Silkie Bantam chicks joined the classroom for the Autumn quarter, with three of them staying as classroom pets. The children have participated fully in socializing the chicks, initiating them to the life of a nursery school chicken.
Why Silkie Bantams? Buffy Welborn, a parent in East PM and experienced chicken owner, suggested this breed of chicken because of its docile temperament. In addition, these chickens have fine, fluffy, hair-like plumage topped off with a pompom-like head, giving them an amusing, cuddly appearance. After reading comments online such as “Silkie chickens are exactly as they look—funny, cuddly and very kind. They are one of the friendliest chicken breeds and will appreciate attention and company,” the teaching team decided to try them as classroom pets (http://www.raising-happy-chickens.com/silkie-chickens.html). Buffy hatched the chicks for the class and provides ongoing guidance about their care. The chickens have proved to be as docile a breed as we had hoped, and have highlighted how beneficial interactions with animals can be for young children.
As educational researcher Mary Jalongo, PhD, wrote in her article Salamanders to Shetland Ponies, connections with animals “are capable of exerting a powerful, positive force in children’s lives.” While interacting with the chickens, the children have developed their emotional, social, physical and cognitive competencies.
Interest in the chickens helped some children with the emotional experience of separation. When children first move away from their caregivers, some are uncertain of what to do first. If a chicken was nearby, children often shifted their focus from caregiver to feathery pet. Letting go of their caregivers, they looked and reached toward the chicks. Children also had many opportunities to consider how their actions affect the chicks. How do they feel about being put in high places? In enclosed spaces? Having their tails pulled? Such consideration of others’ feelings builds children’s empathy. Questions such as, “Why is she making that sound?” reveal children’s efforts to make sense of the chicken’s actions and reactions. This process requires children to practice taking the perspective of others.
One way children learn about the world is through the use of their hands. Holding the chickens provides satisfying tactile stimulation. Such sensory experiences are important for developing children’s sensory processing as well as their emotional growth. “Through cuddling, stroking, and touching pets, children nurture their sense of love and affection,” wrote professor of teacher education Jyotsna Pattnaik, PhD, in the 2004 article On Behalf of Their Animal Friends: Involving Children in Animal Advocacy published in Childhood Edu-cation.
The Silkies have soft, fluffy feathers that the children enjoy touching. As one child commented, “I like their fluffy hair.” Another said, “I like touching them and carrying them.” A few children not only petted or picked up the chickens, but also casually carried them around the yard, either embracing them or holding them under one arm.
The chickens allow for close observation and development of empathy.
For some children, the chicks provided an opportunity to gain confidence. Over the course of a few sessions, children who showed initial hesitancy about the chicks grew more comfortable handling them. Their faces, tilted to examine the chicks more closely, showed their curiosity.
The chickens also provided children an opportunity to gain a sense of agency and control. Young children are often shuttled from one place to another. They may have some choice of their destination, but are often taken where an adult wants them to go. The chickens gave them a chance to play that role in someone else’s life. The children set the chickens in carts and pushed or pulled them from place to place.
For some children, the chickens provided comforting companionship. They would find small spaces to share with a chicken: a crate, an enclosure made of blocks and the willow hut in the yard. Children would sit a chicken on a table where they were writing, drawing or building. Sometimes the chicken sat among a group of children using materials at a table, and other times paired with a solitary child. During such moments of solitary play, the children were relaxed and focused. They paused their activity occasionally to pet the hen or pick her up if she started to wander away. The chickens provided a non-judgmental presence. At such times their presence fostered a feeling of emotional security and calm (Pattnaik, 2004).
Mutual interest in the chickens has brought children together and led them to form social connections as they try to catch the birds, sit together with them or plan where to bring them in the yard. As participants in pretend play, the chickens enabled children to try out the role of parental limit-setting in ways that peers would not. In one extended play scenario, the chicken “children” were “grounded” and subsequently directed to take a potty break. While a peer would not have enjoyed being the child in this play, the chickens had no complaints. They calmly allow the children to carry them, read to them and even practice their “doctoring” skills. Such play resonates with the assertion made by child development scholar Gail Melson, PhD, that “Animals may function as a meaning system through which children make sense of themselves and their surrounding environment.”
Picking up the chickens requires patience, persistence and observation, but also motor planning, agility, strength and control, which are important aspects of physical development. To catch a chicken, children need to approach slowly, then move decisively. They have learned to hold the chicks gently, yet with a firm enough grasp to make the birds feel secure. One child repeatedly got his hands on a hen, but did not have a firm enough grasp to hold her. Each time, he paused for a moment, watching where the hen scuttled to, and then approached her again. After many, many attempts, he grasped her more firmly and stood up from his stooped position, eyes wide in surprise. The children also have to exercise control of their behavior while holding the chickens. They need to walk—even if they want to run—and step down carefully rather than jump.
Besides supporting children’s role-playing, the chickens have prompted thinking in other ways as well. They prompt curiosity, observation and storytelling. While watching the chicks, children made observations about their characteristics and behaviors: “I like it when they walk around and flap their wings,” “They have claws,” and “It’s going to jump down.” They also generated questions such as, “Why do they have hard parts?” “Why are they flapping their wings?” “Do they have eyes?” and “Can they get down from here?”
Two children explored relative size in examining the chicks:
C: This is the smallest.
M: No, this is the smallest. … They’re both the smallest. That’s why they’re twins.
As a recent extension of their use of the outdoor building blocks, children created a maze for the chickens. This project involved thinking about spatial organization and relationships.
As the chicks matured over several months it became apparent that some were hens and others roosters. Hens make better pets, so three of these were selected to stay—and once selected they needed names. The children proposed names and then voted by attaching a paper square by their favorite name for each chicken. This process provided many opportunities for counting, examining quantities and talking about math concepts such as more and less. After the votes were counted, the chickens were given the following names: Snowflake, Dinosaur and Mini Cooper.
Whether accompanying a child while drawing, building or enacting pretend play, the chickens require no explanations or negotiations. They’re companions that allow the children to be themselves. They are fun to watch, fluffy to touch and readily transportable. For many of the children in the class, their memories of Bing will include spending time with the chickens. We are very grateful to Buffy for making this wonderful experience possible.