Very easygoing teachers

USP project uses escargots to teach children school disciplines

EDUARDO CESARPupil and “master” in middle of the lesson: the animal works as a mediator between the child and his anxietiesEDUARDO CESAR

At first sight, it seems difficult enough to imagine them as a sophisticated tidbit. What can one say, then, of escargots as children’s pets, or even more unusual, as a noteworthy educational helper. The project Use of Raising Small Animals (escargots) in Therapy and in the Educational Process, created in 2000 by Professor Maria de Fátima Martins Pacheco dos Santos Lima, a veterinarian from the Nutrition and Animal Production Department of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechny of the University of São Paulo (USP), was inspired on experiments with pet therapy carried out with dogs, horses, birds, and even dolphins. “But there is no record, anywhere in the world, of work with escargots. We are pioneers”, says Maria de Fátima. The foundation of the “Dr. Escargô” project, as it is known, lies in the benefits of the man-animal bond. In the school environment, this gain is added to the possibility of using the animal to innovate with teaching techniques.

Some 360 pupils from the kindergarten to the 4th year of fundamental schooling in Pirassununga (SP) are taking part in the project. The team from USP is taking to the school 500 escargots intended to be in contact with the children, which have been bred in special conditions of hygiene and feeding, so as not to offer any risk to health. In “Dr. Escargô’s” “lesson”, the routine is free and easy: sitting down in circles, in the center of which the monitors put small groups of escargots, the children wait for the visitors to come out of their shells.

While they watch and make contact with the escargots, the students answer a questionnaire sent to the school beforehand. Questions about the origin of Achatina (its scientific name), habitat, physical shape and behavior help in the studies of geographies, sciences and mathematics, amongst other disciplines. “The teachers are extending the approach to their disciplines”, says Adriane Mara Del Ciello, the principal of the EMEIF Catharina Sinotti.

But the activity of observing the escargot is not limited to the school curriculum. It also stimulates reflections on health, sexuality and citizenship. Prompted to show what they had learned with the escargot, the children reply, in a flash: “to be friends”, “to work in a group”, “not to be biased”. “The animal works like a mediator for the child to express his anxieties”, reckons Josiane Perussi, a grant holder with the project in the area of psychology. She tells how, in one of the schools where “Dr. Escargô” is applied, the project helped to identify a child with serious problems in the family nucleus.

When assessing the relationship between the escargot and its shell, regarded as its “house”, a child was able to say that he did not like his own house, because he was maltreated there. On another occasion, girls from the 4th year prompted lengthy questioning about the “menstruation’ of the female escargots, with the evident intention of clearing up their own doubts on the subject. “They wouldn’t have the courage to ask about their own menstruation”, Josiane concludes.

The “Dr. Escargô” team also regarded as encouraging the effects of the interaction between special children and the escargots. In the schools on the project that include them, children with symptoms of autism and Down’s syndrome expressed satisfaction in their contact with the animals. “We are still not ready to act therapeutically with these cases. But we have not abandoned this prospect, which we regard as a possibility when there is greater maturity in the methodology and more multidisciplinarity in the team”, says Maria de Fátima, who is trying to bring into the group a grant holder from the area of pedagogy.

Teacher Marilei Barbelli Metzner believes that there has been a great improvement in the children’s process of becoming sociable. “They have become more docile, they have begun to understand their neighbor better, the differences”, says Marilei, adding that the mothers also reported that their children started to eat greens and drink pennyroyal mint tea, after learning that they are foods for the escargots.

There are, however, no systematic instruments for assessing the impact of the project on performance at school. According to Maria de Fátima, a qualitative assessment is made, on the basis of the direct analysis of the interaction between the escargot and the child. “From the drawings, from the descriptions, and from the participation of each pupil, we check the ideas and concepts that are current amongst the children, and try to find a correlation with schooling using the animals”, concludes Maria de Fátima

Coffee break
One of the main difficulties in the application of the project, recognized by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation as unprecedented in the area of education, is how the teachers taking part became emotionally moved. “In the beginning, when the team arrived at the school, the teachers would take the opportunity to have a cup of coffee during the activities with the escargots”, says Maria de Fátima. Today, according to the coordinator, there is now greater interaction, the escargots are exploited more in the classroom. Even so, Maria de Fátima recognizes that the teachers are not more motivated to carry our supplementary activities – particularly in the public network – because they are not paid to do so.

As soon as she can increase her team, Maria de Fátima intends to expand the application of “Dr Escargô” to other schools, and now plans a later stage of work: “I want to take other animals to schools. I believe that this experience is also valuable in the sense that it awakens early in the child the spirit of scientific research”.

The project
Use of Raising Small Animals (escargôs) in Therapy and in the Educational Process (nº 00/02626-4); Modality Research benefit; Coordinator
Maria de Fátima Martins – Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechny at USP; Investment R$ 27,656.00