A quick YouTube search will turn up countless adorable videos of dogs, cats, and other animals of all shapes and sizes having interactions with children that are equal parts interesting, funny, and adorable. However, in recent years there has been an increase in interest regarding the child and animal relationship among the science and education communities.
More and more educators and researchers are beginning to examine this wonderful phenomenon with the view of how this connection could benefit the educational and social and emotional development of young children. There are also copious amounts of research regarding benefits of an animal-child connection.
Honoring & Acknowledging Life
For quite some time, research has shown that humankind’s innate interest in animals is biological. Biophilia, or a human’s innate affinity for animal species other than our own, is also used to describe the instances in which human’s show an instinct to want to care for or nurture animals that are small and/or vulnerable. However, unlike most adults who tend to view animals for what they can provide (food, goods, even transportation) and pets for the companionship they can offer, children tend to value animals just for what they are, not what they can do or provide for them (North American Association for Environmental Education, 2014).
Additionally, while having experience with common animals like housepets is amazing for a child, experiencing animals (even fairly common ones) out in the wild can be a truly special experience for young children. The spontaneity of the encounter, the lack of control over the animal or its environment, and the unique attributes of the animal on display can make a lasting impression on a child and begin to foster a deep love of wildlife in all of its forms (North American Association for Environmental Education, 2014).
Social & Emotional Competence
Constant contact between children and animals can also benefit children socially and emotionally as children develop. Continuous animal interaction helps children develop their social skills without the pressure of actual human interaction, and children who take care of animals have shown higher levels of self-esteem than children who do not, helping them immensely later on in life (Purewal et. al., 2017). Not only this, but children who spend increased amounts of time around animals have also been shown to be more emotionally stable and empathetic towards others (Jameson, 2015). An academic review of 22 different studies found that children who are in regular contact with animals, domesticated or wild, have shown reduced levels of anxiety (12% of children with animal contact met the cut off value for anxiety versus the average of 22% among children without pets or animal contact) (Purewal et. al., 2017).
Another large benefit of having consistent contact with animals at a young age is an increased level of responsibility on behalf of the child. Most of the animals that children will come into contact with are not fully self-sufficient, and allowing the children to play a role in taking care of another life dramatically increases their sense of personal responsibility. Moreover, fostering interactions between animals and children in more natural settings makes the child feel lucky to be there and increases their own awareness of themself and their surroundings, initiating the beginnings of the journey of self-realization (North American Association for Environmental Education, 2014).
One on one interaction between a child and an animal, typically a pet, but generally any animal they feel comfortable with, can actually improve their language and communication skills. Children often talk to animals in order to confide feelings, be affectionate, and sometimes even give commands, all in a safe and stress free environment (Samuel Ross, The Scholastic Institute). Children have also been known to read to their pets/animals, which in some cases has been proven to dramatically improve their literacy skills. The non-judgmental environment surrounding an animal resonates with the child, giving them a confidence that reading in front of peers or even parents might not provide (Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 2020).
Animal ownership and attachment has also been proven to increase cognitive flexible problem-solving skills and perspective taking abilities, as well as self-reliance and decision making. Animals often engage children in reciprocated verbal and physical behaviors, which in turn further enhances a child’s communication skills. Additionally, children who spend more time around animals have shown naturally higher levels of biological knowledge than those who do not (Purewal et. al., 2017).
An Orange County, California Schools Approach
Anneliese Schools, a private school serving preschool through 6th grade and operating out of Laguna Beach, California, is recognizing the connection between animals and children. Anneliese has implemented a few unique programs to facilitate the best possible learning environment between animals and children. One such way they are doing this is with their Mini Readers Program. This program, founded in early 2018, involves the kindergarten, and more recently first grade classes, and is designed to use horses as a way to foster confidence and establish a love of reading and books among the children.
Three times a week, two students per class are able to participate in this program, where they can have 30 minutes of intentional, adult-guided time with one of the three mini horses living on campus. During this period of time, the students are given the ability to read to the horse and groom it. Through an additional program called Second Steps, the students are also encouraged to interact with the horse as a non-English speaker. They learn to read non-verbal cues and how to build a relationship in a fun and non-judgemental environment where they are free to do so as they see fit, with the guidance of an Anneliese staff member.
The Mini Readers Program isn’t the only step Anneliese has taken to capitalize on the relationship between children and animals. In addition to their horses, the school also facilitates academic and social interactions between their students using their aviary, goats, and alpacas they have on campus. During recess, Anneliese students can volunteer to collect eggs and take inventory of the different birds, and a teacher brings students into the aviary after school when time permits to learn about the different birds within. While the aviary supplies the students a high educational experience, the school’s resident goats provide the young children with some much needed fun, while also providing a lesson in socialization. The goats take more time to warm up to people than the horses or even some of the chickens, but once familiarity is established they are very playful and warm, teaching kids important lessons about forming relationships, even if it is with an animal.
The first animal program Anneliese set in motion was their Farm to Table Handcrafts program. This program involves the school’s three alpacas, and centers around the students crafting all manner of items from the wool sheared off the animals. However, the children also get to form a bond with the alpacas over the course of the year, and the older students get to be present when they are sheared, although the actual shearing is handled by professionals. This bonding process, subsequently paired with the arts and crafts using the animals wool, help instill a belief within these children that it is possible to utilize animals for the things they have to offer without mistreating them or taking advantage of their comparative fragility, an important socialization step for the students.
When asked about why they love the animal program, one Anneliese third grader named Alva had the following to say, “The animals help to calm me down… I just bond with them and they listen to me and they’re good, it’s almost like having a sister or brother!”
In recent years, the benefits of consistent interactions between children and animals has become fairly commonplace knowledge among the educational and scientific communities. However, for a multitude of different reasons, very few schools and education centers have managed to successfully incorporate animal interactions into their curriculum to properly take advantage of these benefits. Anneliese Schools have been an exciting exception to this unfortunate rule, paving the way for what it means to educate children differently, taking full advantage of their location and amazing programs to do so. With time, we should all hope to see more and more schools adopt this system and offer their students the opportunity to take advantage of learning alongside animals.