Diverse Range of Animals & Resources in Western Mass Support Community Based Education

Animal Friendly Western Mass Stimulates Learning in Children (and Adults!)

Animals are a common interest among children. Whether they’re in love with cats of all shapes and sizes or fascinated by the destructive power of a shark’s jaws, children can learn a lot through having an interest in creatures. In utilizing the numerous animal-related community-based learning resources available locally, families can support children of all ages in learning about everything from biological classification to compassion.

Gecko at the Berkshire Museum

As far as learning goes, children’s animal-related interests often have much to do with their age and the developmental stage that they’re in. Young children’s interest in animals is generally limited to a curiosity about where they live, what they eat, and what they do all day – similar to the curiosities that children have about the people around them. Elementary-aged children slowly develop the ability to understand animals as a complex topic, and begin to consider ideas like adaptations, predator-prey relationships, natural habitats, and extinction. Meanwhile, older learners (teens and tweens) can explore an interest in animals by learning about the biological complexities of species classification, the role of conservation in species preservation, and the diversity of animal species and habitats around the world.

For learners of all ages (even adults!), experience is always the best teacher. So it’s only natural that the richest, most exciting and most memorable learning experiences for animal-curious children are ones where they get to be up-close-and-personal with real, live creatures. Luckily, western Massachusetts is filled with opportunities to see a wide variety of creatures. From aquariums to farms, local community-based learning resources present families with the opportunity to learn experientially about animals from all over the globe. Watching an animal in its habitat can teach an observer so much that cannot be truly conveyed through books or videos – and meeting animals in real life can help children learn to develop respect, compassion and a connection with the creatures they share their world with.

LOCAL ZOOS

A diverse menagerie of animals are at home in the zoos and museums of western Massachusetts. To see creatures from all around the world, families can visit Lupa Zoo in Ludlow or Springfield’s The Zoo in Forest Park. Both zoos include a wide variety of creatures, encompassing species found in many different environments – from Lupa Zoo’s Himalayan Bears to The Zoo in Forest Park’s African pygmy goat. Look Park’s Christenson Zoo in Florence is also home to a selection of live animals, though they hail from fewer far-flung corners of the globe. Of particular interest to bird-lovers, the Christenson Zoo houses peacocks, red-tailed hawks, and bald eagles alongside common species of deer, chickens, and goats.

ANIMAL ADVENTURES AT NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUMS

To dive into marine biology and water-filled ecosystem studies, families should be sure to visit the Berkshire Museum aquarium in Pittsfield. In addition to a wide variety of fish, the aquarium’s inhabitants include other wetland and tropical species including a chamelion, geckos, scorpions, and a few very big snakes. Perhaps the most exciting time at the aquarium is Chow Time, a daily event during which visitors can not only watch how (and what!) creatures eat for lunch, but also participate in making meals and learn about the reasons for each animal’s specific diet and ingestion method.

Another resource for marine-based animal learning is the Springfield Museums’ Solutia Live Animal Center, where visitors can see creatures in natural ecosystems such as a coral reef, a rainforest, a mangrove, and the New England coast. Additionally, the museums’ Phelon African Hall includes taxidermy specimens of all sorts of African creatures, including everything from an elephant to a wart hog. While stuffed creatures won’t teach children about animal behavior, they will stay still – meaning children can easily observe the fine detail of each of the animals’ bodies and the interpretations of their life and habitat.

WESTERN MA FARMS

The most place-based of local animal-learning resources in western Massachusetts are are farms – many of which allow visitors to meet the animals  they raise and rely upon both for food and for farm tasks. There are many, many different farm animals raised among the hills of western Massachusetts, and each farm has a different animal-related story to tell. A dairy farm can teach families about raising cows for milk, while a fiber farm’s focus may be on how to raise a healthy family of sheep and rabbits. In addition to learning about the role of animals in farming, an animal-centric farm visit can teach children that not all fascinating animals are exotic – there are plenty of species found close to home who are every bit as fascinating as those found across an ocean. Using CISA’s Fun on the Farm petting zoo finder, families can find farms near them that allow visitors to meet farm animals when they visit. The area’s upcoming agricultural fair season also offers lots of opportunities to visit and learn about livestock, as each fairground’s barns will be filled with every species of cow, goat, sheep, and chicken imaginable.

ANIMAL SHELTERS & REHABILITATION CENTERS

To further a family interest in animals, families can support local animal shelters and rehabilitation centers. The Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society welcomes volunteers who are 16 and older to help out with the many animals who find themselves at the shelter. Additionally, families can support Dakin by donating supplies, conducting fundraising or supply-gathering drives in their community, or perhaps even by fostering or adopting a new pet. The Berkshire Humane Society in Pittsfield has opportunities too.

Similarly, the efforts of Urban Wildlife Rehabilitation – an organization caring for wild creatures in the Springfield area – can be supported through supply and funding donations, presenting a great opportunity for wildlife-loving children to support the creatures they love so much.

MAKING CONNECTIONS AROUND TOWN

Take your child’s interest in animals and use it to connect them with other learning opportunities and potential interests!  Take advantage of things like the beautiful fish aquarium at Teapot Restaurant in downtown Northampton. Your child’s fascination with the aquarium might be a gateway for them to discover a love of Chinese or Japanese foods, broadening their awareness of other cultures and culinary art. If your library offers a Reading with Dogs program, your child’s interest in dogs can open up a world of literacy and love for reading.  Think outside the box and allow the presence of animals in our community lead the way for making connections to other interests too! Check our list of Weekly Suggested Events each week for events that support a love of animals and opportunities to learn through community engagement! Be sure to subscribe to our free eNewsletter for a heads-up on opportunities around the region!

(Photo credit: Joe Boyd )

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