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Learning from Animals

Support self-sufficient students and a school with a sense of community

The innovation teaches children self-sufficiency and life skills through animal care. Animals are integral in the school community – both in and out of the classroom. This model has been linked to preventing social exclusion.

Finland 100


HundrED has selected this innovation to

Finland 100

Web presence






March 2017
As far as we know, this is the biggest conservatory with animals in a school of over 200 m² in Europe.

About the innovation

What is it all about?

Contact with animals and nature during youth is especially important in terms of individual psychology. It also nurtures the development of a relationship with nature.

Feeding, cleaning and socializing with the animals teaches children and young people many useful skills. The students learn how to care for all living things, solve any problems with the animals and take long-term responsibility.

Setting animal care in a learning context fosters the students' relationship with nature and provides opportunities to practice everyday skills and improves self-sufficiency. This initiative also promotes active-citizenship among students which in turn boosts their confidence.

Caring for animals creates a safe, home-like environment for every student through action-based learning. These aspects are especially important for those children and youths who come from an unstable home or struggle with forming relationships. Giving animals long term care provides students with experiences of success, reciprocity and acceptance from the animals as well as other students.

The Vesala comprehensive school in Helsinki has operated a conservatory complete with animals since 1991. It grew little by little from an enthusiastic teacher’s initiative to the current size of about forty animals and 200 plants. To this day, the conservatory centers around the relationship between children and animals.

In a multicultural school animal care and a conservatory provide universal phenomena for study. Students who are not directly involved with the program can also benefit from the atmosphere of caring. Furthermore, the conservatory provides learning experiences for those students who have limited skills in Finnish.

In the beginning, the children and youths are guided how take responsibility over the care of the animals. Working with other people in nurturing the animals promotes co-operation and may even prevent social exclusion. By participating, students gain agency over their own learning process and a sense of community.

These five steps help you launch a small-scale zoo in your school from getting the animals to using them to support teaching. These steps also provide concrete methods to grow the program.

Impact & scalability

Impact & Scalability


Combining ownership of learning with caring and taking responsibility in a lasting manner.


Conservatory with animals has elicited unexpected social benefits in a multicultural school.


You can start small because the program grows naturally within the resources available as people become more motivated.


Implementation steps

Acquiring the animals
Acquire a few animals in terrariums or fish tanks.

You should start small with low-maintenance animals such as stick insects, giant African snails or gerbils.Consider also cooperating with local animal shelters or zoos to acquire the animals. Note, however, that you may need a permit or separate insurance for animal care.

You must ensure:

  • Proper nutrition for the animals and storing it

  • Appropriate facilities for the animals

Consider also children with allergies and keep animals in a completely separate space or a terrarium.

You should make the animals and their care a visible part of everyday activities. Animals should not be hidden away but instead integrated seamlessly to the school environment.It's imperative that the animals and their care are perceived as a regular part of the school activities.

You can incorporate the conservatory directly into the plan if you're building a new school or renovating an old one.

Case Vesala comprehensive school:

The animals and plants are situated in a glasshouse in the middle of the school so that everyone can observe the creatures from every direction.

Organizing animal care
Make a detailed schedule of the volunteers' shifts and responsibilities. The important thing is that the animals are cared for every day.Student volunteers

At the start of the semester, hold a course for animal care. The course will authorize students to care for a specific animal.

The course introduces the basic care for every species, their natural habitat as well as the conservatory's code of conduct. The students also learn specifically about the animal they will care for. This includes their behavior, diet, upkeep, social needs and other important stimuli as well as other details about their care and environment.

Adult volunteers and other partners

You can find volunteers from local animal welfare associations or other third sector organizations. These volunteers are essential during weekend care as well as school holidays and trips.

These partners are also useful resources for animal care and behavior expertise. They can broaden the animals' use in teaching and university teachers can be hired by the university to give lectures about their field.

Municipality animal welfare officials are also a great resource for counseling.

Case Vesala:

At Vesala comprehensive school the student volunteers take care of the animals every school day.

Student volunteers have access to the conservatory during recess, as well as before and after the school day. The students form groups of 2–4 and care for their assigned animals as well as maintain the conservatory.

The students arrange potential shift changes amongst themselves. Older students are in charge and guide younger volunteers. Teachers provide council in more difficult situations.

Vesala's partners include the Youth Department of the City of Helsinki as well as the Gardening Association for Children and Youth. The school has also offered a vocational traineeship for two student animal keepers. A degree student at a university of applied sciences has tended the plants and animals during the summer. A retired biology teacher has checked and fed the animals on weekends and holidays.

Doctor of Zoology, Jarmo Saarikivi from the University of Helsinki has instructed volunteers on reptile care and provided information on zoo upkeep.

Animals supporting learning
Animals can support learning in many subjects.

Teachers may use the animals in lessons by connecting topics from different subjects or students can learn simply by observing them. Students learn math from nutrition calculations and global impact of human behavior from maintaining the animals' habitat.

Examples of topics you can implement to the teaching:

Biology: Animal nutrition, behavior, habitat, adaptation, taxonomy and evolution

Geography: Biomes. At Vesala, the species in the conservatory are sorted, in part, by their natural environment. It's important to know the animal's natural habitat in order to create an appropriate living space for it.

Health education: Basic needs of the animals; how to tend to small accidents and health issues; procreation and death.

Languages: Animal terminology; holding presentations; organizing tours; as well as filming and narrating videos.

Math: Food distribution.

Chemistry: Topics on the care of the fish tank, turtle pond or plants, whatever applies to you. These can include pH balance, states of matter as well as chemical reactions.

Industrial arts, crafts: Building and fixing animal habitats. Installing and adjusting the heating, humidifiers and lighting. These are controlled automatically in the conservatory.

Finnish: Creating narratives about the animals and making oral presentations. Composing different types of texts, such as fact and fiction.

Visual arts: Practicing proportions, perspective and life drawing.

Case Vesala:

At Vesala, animals are used in all the subjects listed above.

During craft classes students have built animal habitats and climbing trees, repaired terrariums and looked after the animals' physical exercise. During the holiday season, the class made red Santa hats and other ornaments for the animals for a holiday photoshoot.You can watch the final result (in English, Swedish and Finnish) here.

The conservatory and the animals have modeled for visual art classes. Even a class of game designer students from the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences spent a day drawing live animals at Vesala.

At Vesala, animals are used in Finnish classes for visits and as material for oral presentations. Volunteers teach visitors of all ages about the animals. They have also visited nursing homes and a library to present animal care and spreading joy to the community.

Expanding the program
Start little by little. This way you can learn about animal care and the changes you must make in a consistent and controlled manner.

The program may start to grow on its own when students become engaged and partnerships facilitate more activities. Animals can also foster a sense of community in your school. As the animals become integrated into school activities, both everyday activities and the teaching, they help build teamwork and communication skills.

When students work with animals, they learn how to solve any questions or problems that arise. They also learn how to build the program as it evolves naturally.

Ideas how to expand your program:

  • Acquire more animals

  • Expand the conservatory

  • Train more student volunteers

  • Encourage more teachers to integrate animals into their lessons

  • Set up cooperation with more partners

  • Implement students' ideas

  • Arrange tours for visitors as the word spreads

  • Arrange visits to nursing homes, daycares, libraries, etc.

  • Found different clubs, such as student-run animal clubs, however, caring for animals builds self-sufficiency and inspires the students themselves to found other clubs.

  • Establish a presence in the community by replying to any inquiries through social media and providing information about the program

Case Vesala:

Organizing animal care

Vesala comprehensive school came about when the local elementary school (grades 1–6) and junior high school (grades 7–9) joined together. The number of students grew and the school had to rearrange the conservatory as well as the animal care.

The school decided that 6th graders and up can volunteer as animal caretakers. Younger students can care for the animals under supervision and attend after-school animal clubs once a week.

Training student volunteers

The school offers an animal care course twice a year which is a prerequisite for acting as a student volunteer. It is important to make sure the students are aware of how long the commitment is and how to quit volunteering due to the large number of students.

Bringing the learning environment outside

The school has an environmental team that is responsible for developing new pedagogical uses for the conservatory. Nowadays, the conservatory has an exotic garden (ginger, vanilla, different citrus plants, banana, passion fruit) and other plants that provide treats to the animals.

During the expansion of the school, the staff was able to provide input to the landscaping. This resulted in an outdoors recreation area for the animals and vegetable gardens.


Students who want to run animal clubs must complete the animal care course as well as a small group instructor course run by a youth club. Afterwards they receive a certificate and can run clubs at the youth club or at the school.

At Vesala, the biology teacher supervises the clubs and youth workers supervise animals clubs at the youth club. Young people who work with the youth club receive a small compensation and a reference from the youth workers. The teachers in charge receive a fee for the after-school clubs they supervise.

The school is planning an indoor plant club in cooperation with the Finnish Adult Education Institute. The participants could also tend the plants meant for animal food.

Moreover, during holidays local children can attend animal camps ran by accomplished student volunteers.

Sharing your experiences
As your program grows, you should think of different ways to share your experiences within the school but especially with other people.

You should share the communication responsibility with a number of teachers, not just the teachers in charge of the conservatory. Remember that students often need encouragement to come up with material for publication.

Ideas for recording and sharing your experiences:

  • Film the activities (time-lapse cameras/a trail camera)

  • Publish activities on your school's website

  • Arrange tours for people in the education field, your partners and the media

  • Set up a blog

  • Connect with people in social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc.)

  • Establish a YouTube channel

  • Encourage educational science studies to be conducted about the program

  • Utilize the program in different studies such as pedagogical studies for teachers

Case Vesala

The school runs a blog (in Finnish) and an Instagram account. Two time-lapse cameras record the conservatory.

School regularly hosts Finnish and international guests. These visits have proven to be among the most effective ways to share our experiences because their pedagogical background allows them to see the goals of the program immediately.

In 2016, the Department of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki created workshops with biology teacher students. These workshops were piloted with Vesala Comprehensive school students, some utilizing in the conservatory. This initiative was considered a success and will be recreated in the following years.

Even a dissertation studying the animal clubs and the relationship between children and animals will be written during the Fall of 2017.

A video presenting the program is in the works.

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