Child-Centred Learning: The day the rabbits came to school

Sometimes a teacher needs to forego lesson plans when other things arouse children’s curiosity and interest.

Sometimes a teacher needs to forego lesson plans when other things arouse children’s curiosity and interest. Such was the day when four children entered the classroom chattering excitedly while carrying boxes and a basket. My curiosity was instantly aroused, but I soon found out what was inside the boxes for the children could not contain their excitement. To join the class for the day were four baby bunnies – complete with milk and syringes for feeding.

What could I do but turn it into a creative day of poetry writing! I put aside the lessons I’d planned so they could play with and enjoy the rabbits, knowing they might not last long because either their cats or dogs would eat them or their farming fathers would kill them. This is child-centred learning, where children can absorb far more information because their aroused interest makes them totally present in the moment.

I learned the importance of this many years ago after a mouse scurried across the room when a principal was talking to my class of nine and ten year olds. Instantly they were in an uproar and some jumped out of their seats to chase the mouse. The principal yelled at the children and told them they had to write out a hundred lines as punishment for their rude behaviour. I think this shocked me as much as it shocked the children, and an oppressive cloud of disquiet settled over us for the rest of the day.

What did the children learn from this? That the principal was an authoritarian who was afraid of losing control and used punishment to keep them in line? Instead, he could have joined the children’s investigation to see where the mouse disappeared. He could have asked them if they knew why the mouse might be in their room and whether food in their lockers along the back wall had tempted it to come in. And he could have finished with a quick word on hygiene and using mouse-proof lunch boxes, or discussed what they could do to keep mice out of the classroom. By doing this, the principal could have regained their attention in a positive way and resumed his talk where he left off, with no ill-feelings to mar the rest of the day.

It therefore helps children in a positive way when teachers remain connected to their own childhood curiosity.

As I write, three baby blackbirds have taken their maiden flight from a nest near my deck. It was only a week ago that I first saw their beaks wobble skywards in search of food. My attention to writing this article was suddenly lost with the discovery that even birds have different personalities. While one chick disappeared quickly into the bush by hopping from branch to branch fluttering its wings, another fluttered awkwardly out of the nest to a branch nearby and tentatively walked up and down it, chirping constantly before nervously taking flight to another nearby branch. Meanwhile, the third blackbird chick stood on the rim of the nest observing the others and, after a feed from its returning father, suddenly launched into full flight and fluttered to the ground as if to say, “I can fly, too!”

If this happened outside a classroom, I would encourage the children to quietly observe the chicks to see what they could learn. So…when Sarah placed her little bunny in my hand and I felt its silky softness and saw how cute it was, my heart melted – along with the lesson plans. Excitedly Sarah wrote on the school blog, “We found a hole with bunny fluff outside it and had turns at feeling down it. Gemma touched it first and said she felt something. Next I put my hand down and felt a bunny. I pulled out all four of them and we took them back home.”

Perhaps you might think, “Well, if the rabbits aren’t going to last long, why let the children play with them and become attached?”

And I will say that children need to engage their full range of feelings for lessons to become a fixture in their memories. That day I watched their joy and delight in the rabbits’ softness and the way they sought to hide in a burrow as they wriggled inside trousers, tickling the children’s legs. The children showed concern for their well-being by feeding them, and showed patience at the difficult task of getting the bunnies to drink milk from a syringe. They looked for soft green grass outside that the bunnies might eat, and learned that they were still too young for that type of food. Their love and gentleness was obvious when they handled them as precious living creatures, despite the fact that their parents regarded them as pests.

Their direct experience enabled them to explore words to create poems about the rabbits to describe accurately what they wanted to say, enriching their appreciation and experience of caring for and playing with the rabbits.

They searched our classroom library for rabbit stories. With greater appreciation and attention to detail, they listened again as I read a delightful story about Pookie the Rabbit who had wings and could fly.

And all this served to make their grief the next day more poignant when they reported that their parents said the rabbits had to stay outside, where the cats tipped over the boxes and basket and ate them all. When they wrote about how they felt in their diaries to release their grief, they learned how cathartic it is to write about sad feelings. They were then able to go on with the day enriched by the experience of a day playing with rabbits and what they had learned, also knowing with a little more certainty that life isn’t always “fair,” and that school doesn’t always “suck”!

Will they forget this day and what they learned? No way. It will stay with them forever because of the broad range of emotions they felt, and the depth of feeling captured in their poetry.

Sarah’s cinquain poem, Roly Poly…
Bunny
Sweet, soft
Sleeping, eating, hopping
Irresistible to be touched
Silky

Susan’s acrostic poem, Fidget
Friendly is my bunny
Isn’t he so soft?
Doesn’t he look so delicious to a cat?
Getting fatter as I feed him milk!
Eating grass when he is bigger!
Tail is so little.

Ben’s acrostic poem, Henry
H
is head is like a soft pillow
Easily he climbs my arm
Naturally his wiggling nostril is so cute
Rests on my lap, snuggling and warm
Yesterday he was safe in his burrow

And now I watch with some delight and amusement as the returning male blackbird searches out each chick to give it a feed as they begin to explore a whole new world.


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