Incorporating pets such as gerbils and hamsters into classrooms has long been a fun and educational way to teach children about caring for animals.
But one school in Sharjah is taking those lessons to the next level with the introduction of goats, ducks, rabbits and chickens.
Wesgreen International School has opened a forest and farm, which pupils share with these animals, plus fantail pigeons, peacocks and turtles.
The children also grow vegetables, including aubergine, cucumber, tomatoes and broccoli, and herbs.
The idea came from the principal's desire to provide pupils with hands-on learning experiences.
"I want our young learners to have a place where they can get their hands dirty playing out in the mud and in the sand, to engage actively with their environment and to benefit from experiential learning opportunities," said James McDonald, the school's principal.
Pupils will be involved in farm management, learning about animal care, ecosystems and the origins of their food.
A forest classroom has been set up for pupils to be educated about the tasks in hand before going out into the farm.
“The children will be feeding and grooming the animals while learning how their ecosystems work," he said.
Plans include a new cafe and a farmers' market, where children as young as five will develop and execute business plans, reinvesting profits into school-wide green projects.
“Pupils will be selling their crops in the farmer’s market and using the proceeds to invest in the farm," he said.
"Our aim is to equip pupils with the skills to be self-sustaining and environmentally conscious in the future."
The project includes distributing 250 large planting boxes around the school to allow every pupil to grow their own produce.
Older Wesgreen pupils are already taking part in eco-friendly programmes, such as e-waste, battery collection and plastic recycling.
These efforts complement the farm activities and contribute to an increased appreciation for the environment among pupils, the principal added.
“What's genuinely happening with our children is that they are developing a love for the environment,” he said.
“Although we are just beginning this initiative, we are already seeing improved academic outcomes for our pupils."
He said pupils with learning challenges have found a unique sense of comfort and engagement on the farm.
“We see pupils with extra developmental needs close down for whatever reason but when they go to the farm, they open up and a smile comes on their faces," said Mr McDonald.
“For me, the magic of what we are doing is already happening and it's having a colossal effect on every part of our school."
The programme aligns with global sustainability discussions, such as those expected at Cop28.
"Our children are the future leaders and this project lays the foundation for that responsibility," he said.
"We're transitioning from a good school to a world-class institution, aligning with the UAE's top-performing schools. This is what our parents deserve and what I aim to deliver.”
The school plans to expand its animal farm in the future.
“It all starts with small changes and this is the small start to a very, very big change in what it means to be a Wesgreen pupil,” he said.
Mr McDonald said when the planned three-phase educational project was complete, the farm would be three to four times its current size of 420 square metres.
“We are upgrading our libraries to 21st-century standards and introducing STEM labs and innovation labs,” he said. "These will include activities for cooking, pottery making and workshops in physics, chemistry and design technology."