May 11, 2011
Oregon Preschool Teacher Named Kind Teacher of the Year
With a name like Funny Farm Early Learning Center and a plush cow named Spot for a mascot, it comes as no surprise that animals are a major focus at this Portland, Oregon, preschool.
Founder Marcy Wells, an early childhood educator for more than 20 years, knows that her young students feel a natural affinity for creatures great and small. By combining that love for animals with lessons in kindness and respect, Wells tries to plant the seeds of empathy and nurture humane attitudes in children.
Eco Rangers to the Rescue
Last summer, for example, Wells and her staff created the "Funny Farm Gone Wild" science program to teach students about endangered animals.
Each week, a call would come through about a different animal in need, from pandas whose bamboo habitat is being cut down to captured snakes who are victims of the pet trade. The children dove into each mission with great enthusiasm and an earnest desire to help—even if the rescued "animals" were just stuffed toys.
"The greatest attribute of preschoolers is their imagination," Wells remarks. "When you pair their love [for animals] with a little bit of creativity, amazing things happen."
Superheroes for Animals
Wells takes a similar interactive approach in introducing her students to the idea of homeless pets. Each February, she turns a section of the school into a mock animal shelter. The preschoolers help set up the shelter and care for its resident stuffed animals, from dogs and cats to lizards and rabbits.
The youngsters are able to adopt the stuffed animals at the end of the unit. Wells says when they inevitably ask mom and dad for a real pet, they'll know the word "adoption" and that there are animals in shelters waiting for homes.
In another context, the concept of endangered species or pet overpopulation might be difficult for a preschooler to understand, but Wells says their interest in animals helps her young students make sense of complex academic content.
"It's presented in a way that is really engaging," explains Wells. "Animals provide a fantastic opportunity to tap into their superhero fantasies and willingness to help, while developing their abilities for compassion, empathy, and respect for the world and the species that live in it."
Small Critters, Large Lessons
The ethic of respect is evident even when it comes to the classroom's smallest visitors. The occasional bug who ends up inside is carefully caught and relocated outdoors, flanked by a team of young security guards. Anthills in the playground are protected by rings of preschoolers who make sure the ants' habitat is not disturbed.
"From their pets to an animal they may see at a distance, being respectful is the core of teaching them to be humane," says Wells. "It's something that's so natural that we all should be doing."
Wells hopes that her young charges will remember these lessons later in life. "Right now is when you're planting the seed," she says, "and that's the most important part."