Learning from living things, often the hard way


Since I write this column at home, school holidays are always a problem. It’s impossible to get any work done with my kids hanging around. One day during the recent winter holidays, I complained about feeling pressured. The deadline for today’s column was looming, but I didn’t even have a topic.

“Write about our hamsters,” my younger son suggested.

I rolled my eyes. “I write an education column. How can I possibly write about our hamsters?”

“We wouldn’t have them if schools didn’t have pets,” my son retorted. I thought for a minute. He was right. I never intended to have pets. We have them only because, unbeknown to us, the school hamster was in a family way when we took care of her one vacation. I patted my boy on the head and went to my computer to write.

Almost all Japanese kindergarten and elementary schools have pets so students have an opportunity to interact with animals. The pets usually belong to the entire school, not just one class, and families often pitch in to help. The first year we were in Japan, it was decided that the hamster in my son’s kindergarten would spend the summer holiday with several families in turn. By the time she came to us, the hamster was noticeably plumper. I just figured the family before us had been too generous with the sunflower seeds. So it was a complete surprise, a few mornings later, to discover a litter of newborns in the cage. Watching the babies grow was a wonderful experience for our family, and we grew attached. When Mommy Hamster went back to school, we kept two babies.

I was curious about why so many Japanese schools keep pets. Sure, there are pets in American schools, but it’s far from universal. It depends mostly on whether teachers are willing to make the effort.

When my older son was in first grade in the United States, he had a terrific teacher who filled her classroom with animals. There were fish and lizards and a pair of guinea pigs that were constantly doing, well, what pairs of guinea pigs do. (“It’s the natural way to teach children about sex!” his teacher enthused.) But she had to do most of the work of caring for all those pets, and many teachers are understandably unwilling to add pet-care to their workload.

Things are different here in Japan. There’s an infrastructure for pets in schools. Most schools have large pens in the schoolyard to house animals. And there’s a system in place so that students do most of the pet-care. Our school keeps chickens. At first this struck me as crazy because the birds are so damn noisy. Our rooster is a bit of a rowdy who crows loudly at inopportune times, his favorite being the solemn moments of school ceremonies. But I soon realized that cockadoodledoos are heard over school walls throughout Japan. Chickens are so popular as school pets that there is an entire Web site devoted to the subject, complete with pinups of handsome birds.

At virtually all schools in Japan, students help with cleaning and other jobs. There is usually a roster of special tasks handled by older students. At our school, the fifth- and sixth-graders serve on committees to help plan events, make announcements and keep equipment in order. It’s easy to incorporate pet care into this system, and almost all schools have a shiiku iinkai (animal-care committee).

The number of schools with pets, and the number of pets per school, jumped in 1991, when the Education Ministry introduced a new subject called seikatsu-ka (life studies). The ministry’s curriculum guidelines for this and other subjects, including moral education, recommend that schools keep pets so children can learn from direct interaction with living things.

Why all this emphasis on school pets? Of course students learn basic science from pets. That birds lay eggs while mammals give birth to live young. But Japanese teachers will tell you that children also learn responsibility, compassion and respect for living things.

Some lessons can be hard ones. In one fourth-grade class, the kids on aquarium-cleaning duty moved half a dozen goldfish into a bucket. But they got distracted and forgot to put them back. All the fish died. It was an upsetting event for the class, but a good opportunity to learn about responsibility to the living things that depend on them.

At another school, children suffered when a pet rabbit died suddenly. A few days later, a student saw two classmates fooling around on the stairs and scolded them. “That’s dangerous! If you fall down and die, a lot of people will be sad, just like when the rabbit died.” The boys stopped. A teacher who witnessed the incident said feeling sad about the rabbit helped students learn to value life.

But appreciation for school pets may be waning. Mihoko Nakagawa, head of the Veterinary Council for Animals in Schools, says she sees a new tendency among teachers to regard pets as too much trouble, particularly since the adoption of the five-day school week nearly a year ago. Longer weekends make it more difficult to care for pets properly, and more of the work falls on school staff.

Nakagawa recommends that parents and neighbors step in to help care for school pets. A school in Kamakura, for example, formed a committee of 40 parent-child pairs to care for the school bunnies on Saturdays and Sundays. At other schools, students take turns having pets for weekend “home stays.”

I know how much my children have benefited from school pets, so I think it’s reasonable for parents to help out. But parents should be forewarned that getting involved carries the risk of ending up with a permanent pet, like we did.

So watch out for unusually fat hamsters.