“Once upon a time” takes on a whole new meaning for many of the children in Naples, Florida. Various schools and programs benefit from the generous volunteers who participate in an innovative program called Read To Rabbits. The program was ultimately created by local resident Andrea Stetson with the help of her English Lop rabbits. The program encourages children to read by letting them read to specially trained rabbits. After all, who wouldn’t love to sit with a big, soft, adorable bunny and read to him or her?
Stetson was inspired roughly 11 years ago by the more commonly known Read To Dogs program and her daughter who read books to her bunny in a rocking chair at night. The program was born when her then 8-year-old daughter, Kristyn, shared her routine with a librarian while taking part in the local Read To Dogs program. The librarian approached Stetson and asked if she would like to bring her rabbits in for a Read To Rabbits program. Stetson jumped at the opportunity, as she and her family were looking for a new way to bond with their rabbits.
The increasingly popular program branched out from the local libraries to serving local elementary schools, Collier Country Parks and Recreation, and special needs groups.
“We still do the libraries and a local elementary school, but our biggest volunteering is at Gargiulo Education Center,” Stetson said. “This is an after-school program for the children of migrants where they get extra help with homework and reading. Many of the children are below grade level and are reluctant readers. They often complain and try to get out of reading. But every Thursday when we come the children sign up to read and can’t wait until it is their turn.”
The wonderful thing about the program is how much everyone involved benefits, especially the rabbits. The bunnies get a good bit of attention due to the grooming done before a visitation, the training which is done with sessions of sitting cuddling so that they learn to be calm around people, and the attention they get from the participating children. When asked how people benefit, Stetson said, “For my son, who is 15, it gives him volunteer hours for high school. For the children it makes them excited about reading. I really love to see the children who normally struggle with reading and don’t really like it much, suddenly become so excited. The bunnies don’t know if they read a word wrong, so they feel more confident reading to the bunnies than to an adult. It is awesome to see how much they love reading to the rabbits.”
You will find various bunnies in various levels of training in the Stetson home. All of the family members contribute in some way to socialize the rabbits, get them used to grooming, teach them to respond to cues and treats, to sit for long periods of time, learn to wear a halter, and to travel and go out in public. Bunnies can begin as early as 10 weeks old, although they begin rocking them in rocking chairs earlier.
“When they are under a year they usually do not have the ability to sit for that long, so they are bunnies in training,” Stetson said. “Starting when they are about 6 months old I will take them in a travel case and then use an older bunny for most of the program and just introduce the younger one the last 10 minutes. As they get older I can extend the time they are out.”
Stetson says that English Lops have a reputation for being an especially calm and easy-going breed of rabbit. Although it is important to consider the breed for such a program, each rabbit is an individual and should be evaluated based on that. “Any bunny that is calm enough to sit happily for about an hour and is litter pan trained can be part of the program,” Stetson said.
What are the kids likely to expect during their first visit? The process begins with one of two 10-minute PowerPoint presentations about bunnies. One is designed for very young children, the other is more detailed for older children. Children are shown photos of rabbits from birth on. They are introduced to fun details about the species, such as how many teeth they have, what they eat, the proper names for the sexes, and most of all how to care for them. The kids then gather in a circle and Stetson walks around to each child, and they take turns petting a bunny and feeding it tiny pieces of treats like spinach, carrots or broccoli.
Each child reads to a bunny for around 10 minutes and gives them a small treat when they are finished. The children literally line up to sign up and take turns to read to a bunny. And the bunnies wait in line to get their turns as well. Kids’ attention spans can but short, but sometimes a bunny’s can even be shorter. A bunny is free to sit for an hour or so, but if he gets wiggly and only wants to spend 10 minutes reading that’s OK too. There are other bunnies just waiting for the attention.
Kathryn Stack, director of the Gargiulo Education Center, describes the importance of that first visit. She especially thought the PowerPoint presentation was valuable, “I think it’s important for them to be able to learn things and then immediately see those things firsthand. That sort of real-world connection makes the information stick.”
Stack enjoys the furry visitors very much herself, but she enjoys the children’s enthusiasm and the bunny’s positive effects on the children and their learning even more. “We hope that Andrea and Alex are able to continue coming weekly for the rest of the year so that all of our children can be comfortable both with the new animals and their books.”
You might wonder what you would read to a rabbit. “The children bring their own books,” Stetson said. “If they bring a chapter book, they will usually read one chapter. If it is a picture book they will read the whole thing. For the kids who are really young and can’t read yet, we tell them to read the pictures, which are basically telling the bunny what is happening in the pictures. When we are at the libraries the librarians will often pull out a bunch of bunny books for the kids to read.”
All in all, it’s the children’s voices and peaceful interaction the bunnies relish, not whether they are being read a book about quantum physics or a See Spot Run. Regardless, bunny-loving students know that there is always someone there just for them when they read. Someone with big, sweet eyes looking intently up at them who is “all ears” listening to only them. What better incentive than that for a child to read?
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