Children in Bonnie Schwertner’s fourth grade class at Brookwood Elementary School in Friendswood, Texas, have a little more reason than the average child to want to go to school. That’s because they can’t wait to see a very special “classmate” when they get there. That unusual classmate is a ferret named Skeeter.
Schwertner is a ferret owner of 15 years. Whenever she mentioned her beloved ferrets to her class, they begged her to bring one in. Her youngster, Skeeter, stood out as the calmest ferret she has ever owned. So impressed with his confidence and well-adjusted personality, she granted the children’s request when he turned 1 year of age and started bringing him to school on Fridays. And so began Ferret Fridays!
Schwertner has integrated interesting lessons about various subjects around the ferret. She describes what she teaches her class about Skeeter. “Students learn all about him, his characteristics and antics, his digestive system, the history of ferretting, responsible ownership, medical needs, diet and health, etc. I keep him in an 11-panel portable ‘play pen’ to run around in, so they can get great views. I also use a recycled newspaper litter, so we talk about eco-topics, too. However, the best lesson is in caring for a sweet, helpless creature.”
Skeeter encourages learning through the enthusiasm he creates in the children. What they see as just a furry friend in their classroom is actually more of an “assistant teacher.”
This special teacher, her supportive principal and a progressive school district have created a wonderful learning environment for their children. It’s supported by a marvelous program within the Clear Creek ISD school district called the Living Materials Center.
“In my district, we are lucky to have a Living Materials Center from which we can borrow animals,” Schwertner said. She added that the LMC is run by the district and is housed in a very large area of the junior high science magnet school. The animals at the LMC are donated or abandoned, and receive complimentary veterinary services from Bay Glen Animal Hospital, which also happens to be Skeeter’s vet clinic. “He loves Dr. Janney and Dr. Long!” Schwertner said.
Safety is always emphasized. “We must be trained by the district to be able to bring animals into the classroom, even our own personal pets,” Schwertner said. “My principal welcomes Skeeter, and she also sees the benefits to the children.”
Skeeter is indeed very special, as is his relationship with the students. His success at the school really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Numerous studies of children in close relationships with pets have proven there are positive impacts on them developmentally, socially and emotionally. Proper guidance, education and exposure to pets lead to a variety of wonderful values and qualities.
When Schwertner’s fourth grade students help with the caretaking of Skeeter, they learn responsibility, sharing and teamwork. They also learn important skills such as conflict resolution, patience and tolerance. But most importantly, Skeeter offers the children potential to bond as well as develop empathy.
For example, they must learn to tune in to Skeeter’s feelings by being aware of his body language and behavior in order to know what his needs are. This role-playing is crucial to the healthy psychological development in a child, and these skills transfer over into their interactions with humans. Perhaps the most valuable thing Skeeter offers is the sheer joy he brings the children and school staff. That is immeasurable by any study.
Speaking of joy, that is exactly what Skeeter gets in return. He receives unbridled and unlimited attention, hugs and kisses. He benefits from stimulation, socialization and exercise. He gets to enjoy treats and new spaces to play in and explore. Most of all, he gets adventure — all ferrets crave adventure.
Schweitzer describes how she knows Skeeter looks forward to the visits, “Most people will tell you that ferrets do not like baths. Skeeter knows that when he gets a bath, it’s time to see the children. He just lays there while I work on him. When I get him out of the car at school, he dances in his carrier, because he loves school. He is tired at the end of the day, but he’s always ready to go back.” And there is an entire school just waiting for Skeeter to come back.
It is a winning situation for all those involved. Thanks to this caring teacher, special ferret and incredible school, the children have many more Ferret Fridays to look forward to with their tiny “assistant teacher.” It has been noted that children learn best through touch. And that is exactly what Skeeter does. He touches their hearts.
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