From Pigs to People: Socialization Skills Developed Naturally

New Zealand is where I finally caught up with Karen Lucy, Director of Early Childhood Education in the Shirlee Green preschool at the Jewish Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri. We were both there for the 2017 World Forum on Early Care and Education. Karen’s presentation on children and nature was low-tech, heartfelt, and profound; as I expected. And from the stories she and her co-conspirator (AKA husband) Dave told me in Auckland, I knew another blog post was on the way.

As I wrote in  A 140 Pound Pot-Bellied Pig Walks Into a Preschool, and…, “Fasten your seat belts.” Literally, this time, as Karen’s first escapade takes place in a car. And although this story doesn’t directly involve her Nature Explore Classroom, don’t worry, we’ll get there soon. This is just an appetizer.

Karen and Dave are on the road, speeding, late to a presentation. The animals they’ll feature are housed in tubs, (snakes in bags), a few feet behind them. Dave checks the rear view mirror.  He sees that the four-foot alligator (mouth taped closed, fortunately), has exited his tub, and is now facing the rear window. It watches the other cars recede into the distance, as their drivers cringe in astonishment.  Apparently they were not accustomed to seeing a speeding car with an alligator for a lookout. So as David maintains speed, Karen climbs into the back, engages the alligator, and returns him to his tub, securing it with a strong bungee cord. The presentation started a tad late; with Karen, Dave and animals intact.

Now, back to the Shirlee Green Outdoor Kitah (Hebrew for classroom). Karen recently acquired a mini pig; Miss Sissy, who visits both the indoor and outdoor kitot (Hebrew for classrooms). Of course there’s lots to be learned through this new member to the classroom; from what she likes to eat, to watching her grow, to studying her interactions with both the other animals (see here), and with the children themselves. Yet Karen’s knowledgeable and spiritual connection to both animals and children suggests a deeper mission for Sissy.

We’ve seen many other Nature Explore Classrooms in which children learn how to feed, care for, and handle animals (including worms). This is Karen’s starting point for the children’s relationships with Sissy. And it is a growing platform for their relationships with all the people in their worlds.

Much has been made recently about a “coarsening” of our culture, and of hopes that children can grow up respectful all people. And St. Louis has seen its share of recent domestic strife. Even very young children absorb their own understandings of the socio/political environment surrounding them.

Early learned socio-emotional skills form the basis of how we understand and treat others throughout our lives; how we evolve into citizenship. And learning to understand and react respectfully to the behaviors and emotions of others is basic to these skills. This is where Sissy comes in.

Young children respond to domestic animals (usually dogs and cats) with openness and curiosity. Maybe this is partially because animals and children don’t often compete for the same resources, (unless that dog rattle is attractive to both). Children and puppies are the obvious example.

Mini pigs, like dogs, are social animals. Their cuteness and behaviors draw the children’s attention and affection. The children of Shirlee Green are innately motivated to care for Sissy. Karen scaffolds this caring into learning how to read and react to Sissy’s behaviors, and, by extension, her “emotions” and needs. Is she feeling playful? Is she hungry? Does she need some quiet time? Does she feel safe with you?  Is she tired?

Although Sissy can’t use words, she does “use her sounds.” Karen says that pigs, “have a large communication range.” Her many, varying grunts, grumbles and squeals reveal a lot about her needs. And, like young children, Sissy uses her whole body to communicate. Tail up means she needs to ‘use the bathroom.’ Tail tucked under means she’s nervous (like dogs). Is her tail wagging? Are her ears up, and alert? Or are they relaxed?

The children, wanting to care for and play with Sissy are learning to “read” her sounds and behaviors. These close observation skills form the basis of learning how to respond empathically to her. And this skillset is the same that, when translated, informs their socio-emotional relationships with the humans in their lives.

The process of children learning skills in nature and transferring them to other parts of their lives is common. What is rare in Karen’s use of Sissy is the complex and knowing intentionality of this process. Karen even refers to Sissy as a “service pig.” We usually think of a service animal as one that helps her owner with areas of emotional of physical need. Yet Sissy serves the many children in a profoundly humane development of normative behaviors.

Using the American Mini Pig Association’s (AMPA) guidelines, the children of Shirlee Green are working towards the AMPA Therapy Pig Training Certification. Behaviors such as sit/stay, accepting gentle touches, and walking in crowds are developed through AMPA guidelines. Yet more importantly, they are developed through the children’s relationship with Sissy. Here, we go back to the socialization and interaction skill development that is just as important for children as it is for Sissy. Children who learn to “read” Sissy, and to engage her into willing interactions can generalize appropriate aspects of these skills in interactions with their friends, families, and others in their worlds.

“One of the hardest things for children to understand is how their friends feel,” says Karen. “So I tell them, ‘Watch Sissy. She’ll tell you if she feels comfortable with you.  And when you’re calm, and when you allow her to come to you, that’s when you’re going to have a good friend.’ They don’t have the skills needed for socializing, so they may just approach a friend too fast, or they may grab a toy away. I tell them, ‘Use your friend as a guide. Look at their face. Are they squinting their face up? They don’t like what you say, or they can’t understand you? Are they looking sad because of something you said, and you’ve hurt their feelings?’ So it’s the same thing—trying to have them better understand another object that’s living—whether it’s an animal or a human. Have them better understand and put themselves in another person’s shoes.”

Learning in the natural world and generalizing to the personal world. This is one of Sissy’s benefits to the children.

Yet Sissy has other values to the school, as well. She also comes in handy for crowd control.

Carpool time. This can often be a chaotic time for the children (and teachers). And it was that at Shirlee Green—until Sissy arrived. Karen and her staff had tried different strategies, including using walkie-talkies. “Listen for your name,” they’d say to the excited children.

Now, Sissy walks out and the children know to be quiet to avoid frightening her.  “Sissy walks through the hall where they’re seated, she greets everyone. And at the same time, children are quietly being taken out to the car. And it has just brought a whole new dimension to the preschool.”

Once again, Karen Lucy and the teachers and children of the Shirlee Green preschool show us how creative engagements with the natural world hold profound benefits for us all. The stories of these engagements at the Shirlee Green Preschool are not over.  Expect more to come.