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For many children, their first pet is a virtual one.
Experts say many children who enter the first grade can play video games but few have a pet to play with. And teachers say that’s a shame, considering how animals — real ones — can enrich a child’s upbringing.
So for a quarter of a century, educators such as Dawn Slinger in Farmington, Minn., have paid out of their own pockets to provide one for their classrooms. Only in the past few years have groups stepped in to help with the financial burden.
Two years ago, Pets in the Classroom, a Maryland-based project from the nonprofit foundation Pet Care Trust, began offering grants to U.S. and Canadian teachers in grades 1 through 8. The money can be used to buy starter pets, cages, food and other supplies. It issued its 10,000th grant this summer.
The $150 grants help offset the cost of the animal and its care, which helps teachers like Slinger who has been using her own money, said foundation executive director Steve King. Just an aquarium for a frog could cost more than $100.
Teachers who apply for a second year or more get $50 for additional equipment, food and supplies.
Slinger believes the cost is worth the experience for her students. She builds lessons around two miniature Russian tortoises, a fire-belly newt, tree frogs, three types of gecko, several hermit crabs, two small ball pythons, a corn snake and a 45-gallon tank of fish. Students observe and draw the animals, and research and write about them.
Parents tell her their children are inspired by the animals and are excited about learning, she said.
She said that out of a class of children — hers last year had 26 — “maybe six will have pets at home, usually a cat or dog. Not many will have reptiles.” Since taking her class, “several students have gotten hermit crabs or fish for their houses. One got a lizard and one is working on a snake.”
The decision over what kind of pet to get lies with the teacher. Slinger chose hers because they fascinate children, their temperaments are right and they don’t bother students with allergies or asthma, she said.
Classroom pets also can be incentives for good grades, as when some teachers allow students to care for the animals when school is out, King said.
As for the animals that don’t return for another school year, that’s a learning moment too, he said.
“Lifespan is part of the life lesson that comes with having a classroom pet.’’