It is just the second morning of school and you wake up, stretch, and eat your oatmeal while Mom or Dad packs a lunch. You get dressed in your favorite fall jumper and climb into the car on your way to school. Everything about this morning has been perfectly normal until you walk into your classroom. Right there, behind Mr. Fox's desk is a BAT! A real bat, hanging upside down!
This is how Pamela Duncan Edward's Ms. Bitsy Bat's Kindergarten begins.
As the day goes on the students in Ms. Bitsy Bat's class are surprised to learn that this strange creature isn't very different at all from their regular teacher. In fact Ms. Bitsy Bat seems to have a solution to every problem.
In our office, we often hear stories about how children interact with our resident raptors or reptiles. There is a constant balancing act between supporting a child's natural inclination to empathize with the animal and overt anthropomorphism.
But that perspective is problematic too! Now we have kids who are both terrified of their teachers and terrified of bats. In reality, the populations of bats in the Northeast are severely threatened by white nose syndrome and could use some support from their human neighbors. What we need to do is strike a healthy balance between two types of empathy.
Nature specific programs are great ways to get live animals safely into your classroom. Our Small Wonders in-school program is hugely popular and helps kids transfer the empathy skills they learn from peer-to-peer interactions into a sense of responsibility for the natural world, even at a very young age. Your local nature center or wildlife refuge probably has similar offerings.
When it comes to building your day to day lessons, there are many guides designed to help your planning. Small Wonders is also a book of lesson ideas and activities available at VINS and online. VINS also developed Hands-on Nature with similar resources for older students. Project Learning Tree created an education guide for early childhood educators called Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood and the Environmental Education Foundation's guide is called Growing Up WILD. These organizations also offer workshops on those resources for all types of educators.
It is also important for young students to feel safe and supported in their classrooms in order to support the development of these social skills. When it comes to creating an environment where empathy becomes the norm, we have to be very intentional in our words and actions. This article outlines some concrete suggestions for fostering a welcoming space where empathy can become a strength. Teaching Tolerance, a production of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers activities that are focused on the early skills that are key in recognizing and developing peer-to-peer empathy.