Program helps Indiana students learn lessons about animals

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — Between the art projects and the math problems, each Wednesday may seem like a typical school day for a small group of Maple Crest Middle School students. But there’s something new that makes each Wednesday unique: the bunnies.

Animals and Art is a new program in Kokomo run by Lindsay Fisher, a therapeutic horse trainer and owner of Animals and Art, a business that helps students learn real-world concepts working with animals.

Each week, Fisher and three bunnies visit the life skills class at Maple Crest, meeting with students who have special education needs. Fisher uses the animals as a way to help teach the students real-world concepts using animal-assisted education. The program, she said, is already helping the life skills students.

One week, she asked the students how many times they thought a bunny could hop in a matter of seconds. At first, some students gave out huge numbers, but then she showed them how long it takes a bunny to hop once.

“Does it make sense if you say a rabbit is going to hop 800 times in 2 seconds? That’s how these hypothesis statements started,” she said. “They had to learn and understand ‘oh, if I say something, does that actually make sense?'”

The students watched how the rabbits hopped, and Fisher said it suddenly made sense to them.

“If they’re just learning from a textbook, that may not have translated as quickly,” she said. “The rabbits bring this valuable thing that humans can’t – just real life learning.”

When she first started meeting with the students, she focused primarily on how to properly handle the animals.

“The first four weeks were all about animal behavior and how their emotions are expressed in their behaviors, but we would also learn about human behavior and how our emotions are expressed in behaviors,” Fisher said.

Their teacher, Michelle Takacs, said she was impressed with how her students were handling the bunnies and picking up on their emotions. After those first four weeks, her students started paying closer attention to each other’s emotions. If they notice someone in the class is having a bad day, they tend to be gentler with that student.

The students have focused on using math, writing in complete sentences and clearly communicating ideas. Many of the lessons focus on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math

“They’re doing (these lessons) on a level that’s something they can digest and understand,” Fisher said. “The goal of the program is to not just be able to learn these concepts and it not go anywhere, but to be able to learn these concepts and it applies to their standardized testing, it applies to their classroom learning and it applies to their daily interactions with their peers and their families.”

Takacs said it has helped test scores. Her students take the ISTAR test, an alternative standardized test to ISTEP. After the test, her students told her they remembered certain things from Fisher’s lessons and were able to answer questions they might not otherwise have answered.

And more than that, she said, her students are learning to think creatively. One week, Fisher asked the students to create a toy to encourage one of the rabbits’ natural behaviors, such as grooming, digging or chewing.

The students worked with a variety of colorful supplies, like pipe cleaners and plastic egg shells. The students were asked to create a small toy and test it with the rabbits to see if it would encourage the behavior they chose.

Cayden Spencer created a sort of bed using pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks. He hoped his toy would encourage the rabbits to groom.

Spencer said he enjoys the class and especially getting to interact with the rabbits each week. He said he’s learned to pay attention to their ears to know how they’re feeling, and he tries to be quiet and gentle with them.

Colton Shoaf, another student in the class, filled a plastic egg shell with things a rabbit could chew. If he could improve the design, he said he’d drill a hole at the bottom to allow a rabbit to get to the items inside.

Shoaf said his favorite class is gym, but working with the rabbits is a close second.

“I know all about the bunnies,” he said. “They’re soft.”

Fisher also works with high ability students at Purdue University, and she is opening a facility in Kokomo to offer more local programming related to animal-assisted education. The facility will offer STEAM-based riding lessons, therapeutic riding, special needs learning and a variety of animal-assisted education and therapies. Her facility is located at 2110 W. Alto Road.