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Partners in Learning uses guinea pigs to help teach lessons

SALISBURY – On the campus of Catawba College, two guinea pigs are living like kings during the week.

Tyson and Cookie, the latest additions to the faculty at Partners in Learning’s Catawba site, have a few lessons to teach the kids: responsibility, kindness, emotional regulation and self esteem among them. They are among the critters kids get to interact with at the Catawba center. Classrooms also have hermit crabs and fish. Both Catawba and the Novant center have chicken coops.

Early Intervention Director Cassie Carriker said Thursday morning a child was struggling to come back to preschool after having to stay at home and quarantining due to COVID-19. Carriker took him on a walk to look at the chickens, pet the guinea pigs and get him in tune with his senses so he could better control his emotions.

Carriker said a key function of Partners in Learning is social and emotional development. She gave the example of a toddler who may be impatient to hold Cookie. That is a good time for the staff to emphasize to the child that their turn to hold him is coming up and set a timer to help exercise some patience.

When that child gets to hold Cookie, it is a good time to talk to the child to observe things about the guinea pig like the softness of Cookie’s fur and take a moment to think about his emotions as well. Does Cookie look afraid or happy with what is happening?

“The possibilities are endless when a child is able to look at an animal and see they have feelings too,” Carriker said.

Partners in Learning teaches students to be kind to animals. If they see a line of ants crawling, the teacher makes sure to tell the students not to harm them.

Students do not have to pet the animals if they do not want to. Some warm up to interacting with them after seeing other kids who are comfortable doing so. Some teachers have been learning from Cookie and Tyson as well, having never held guinea pigs before.

Catawba’s center was inspired by Partners in Learning’s Novant center, which has a guinea pig of its own. A teacher and guinea pig lover at Catawba got wind of Novant’s pig, JJ, and now there are two guinea pigs in toddler classrooms.

Carriker said the guinea pigs were a good option for an exciting animal kids could hold.

“They love them so much,” Carriker said. “We have two toddler classrooms. Both are guinea pig obsessed.”

Novant center director Beth Jones said their guinea pig, JJ, is used often when children are upset.

“We’ll bring them up here, they sit down on the couch and pet him,” Jones said. “He does a good job at helping them to calm down.”

JJ gets peppers and carrots in exchange for his services. Teachers at the Novant center now have pocket books sewn by a faculty member JJ can fit in. That helps the pet make his way out of Jones’ office and make the rounds to all the classrooms. Visits from JJ are sometimes used as a bargaining chip for good behavior.

Partners in Learning Executive Director Norma Honeycutt said the agency has had different animals throughout the years. These days, animals have to check out medically to be used in child care centers. The agency recently found a veterinarian who could provide the documentation needed for the guinea pigs.

Domestic guinea pigs like those at Partners in Learning are docile. They make soft noises, enjoy vegetables and are exceedingly unlikely to bite someone handling them. Unlike some other rodents kept as pets like hamsters and gerbils, guinea pigs tend to be content to sit still while being held.

Jones said she thinks guinea pigs are the best option for families looking for caged pets because they are docile and large enough children can hold him.

They have a lot of personality as well. JJ knows his name, and he will watch people come and go as they walk past his enclosure.

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