For the most part, I knew what I had signed on for when I took the job of the Head of The Valley School – except for the animals. On my first day on the job, July 1, 2014, I listened to a phone message from a neighbor who reported that she had “one of our chickens.” She had “rescued” Snow White, who was being “henpecked” by the other two chickens. This moment marks the start of my education in animal husbandry at Valley. I was vaguely aware that the phrases “henpecked” and “pecking order” describe real social dynamics among chickens. Now I know the truth. In the last year and a half, my appreciation for both the complexities and benefits of having animals in an elementary school has only grown. And now, I am clear that the benefits significantly outweigh the occasional dramas, kerfuffle, and mysteries.

According to my recent animal census of The Valley School campus, we have:

Three hermit crabs named Startle, Swirl, and Marshawn Pinch

One hamster named Humphrey

One guinea pig named Squeakers

Two classroom mice named Popcorn and Brownie

Three egg-laying chickens named Snow White, Sassy, and Red

One rabbit named Sir Flops-A-Lot

One white French bulldog named Gus

Countless slugs

Countless snails

Itinerant squirrels and birds

135 human beings, give or take a few, depending on the day

Having animals around means that we never want for stories. There’s the recent story of Humphrey, the kindergarten hamster, who went AWOL in December. After searching high and low for Humphrey, we determined that Humphrey had “gone on vacation.” In mid-January, a month later, Humphrey turned up in the classroom recycling bin, looking very healthy and not too pleased about his return to a cage. How he got out of his cage in the first place and what kept him plump and healthy for a month remain mysteries – and inspirations for imaginative stories by kindergarten kids.

The pre-K children build elaborate homes for our three hermit crabs, including one named Marshawn Pinch, after the Seattle Seahawks running back. We keep looking to see whether he/she imitates “Beast Mode.” The hermit crabs thus provide a context for imaginative story-telling, construction projects, and play-based research. Every year, our younger kids show an almost insatiable interest in slugs and snails, and they spend considerable time examining the habits and habitats of these little critters. All the while, they develop their powers of observation and gain an appreciation for the natural world. The animals at The Valley School therefore play a vital role in an emergent curriculum that draws on the natural curiosity and passions of children.

The emotional and psychological benefits of having animals in our lives are well documented. Juvenile delinquents show tremendous progress when given responsibility for caring for pet dogs. Elderly people show cognitive and social growth when caring for animals. A recent article in the New York Times magazine described how parrots are used in helping patients recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We have none of these populations, and yet we know from experience, for example, that holding a guinea pig can help calm a distressed kid. Taking care of animals brings a sense of responsibility and empathy. As part of their afternoon chores, fourth and fifth graders clean the rabbit hatch and the chicken coop. Classroom animals need care over weekends and vacations, and, when children take care of a classroom pet, this responsibility gives them real-life lessons with far-ranging benefits.

Having animals in our classrooms and on our campus also puts Valley School kids in contact with death. Animals die, and, since I started working at Valley, we’ve lost five animals. These events put kids in touch with the arc of life and with the realities of loss. In these situations, classroom teachers spend time helping students sort through complicated emotions. Kids will have a wide range of reactions to the death of an animal, and, with help from our teachers, Valley students learn that there are different ways, all natural and authentic, to respond to loss.

Learning takes place on multiple levels and through multiple interactions. The interactions between Valley kids and Valley animals are one of the many experiences that make this a special and engaging place for young learners.