Shane Jordan, an Education Environmental Practitioner and a qualified Early Years Practitioner, explains the importance of young children developing empathy towards animals and how to provide nurturing experiences for them to be able to do so:
To understand that nature exists in our own backyards and neighbourhoods can be a very fascinating experience for children. You can read to a child about nature and tell them to appreciate the animals and the trees in the natural world, but unless they physically interact with it themselves they will never truly learn. Environmental Education (EE) is such a necessary part of learning, especially in a child’s early learning years.
Young children tend to develop emotional attachments to what is familiar, whether it be their parent, caregiver or their pet. The more personal children’s experience with nature, the more environmentally concerned and active children are likely to become. Children’s positive encounters with nature can lead to developing a deeper respect for the environment in an ethical way.
Empathy is built at an early age. The more nurturing children are to their surroundings, the more their environment has an effect of them. This gives way to positive values, attitudes and believes. Regular interactions within nature can help children develop respect and a caring attitude for the environment.
Not only are regular experiences in nature important, but also watching adults, both parents and teachers, can help aid this. If children view positive behaviour and a lack of fear towards animals, then children will likely mimic this behaviour. On the flip side, if children see adults mistreat or show fear towards animals then children may follow suit and also develop ‘irrational fears’ themselves.
Children and Baby Animals
Young children feel a natural kinship with, and are drawn to animals – especially baby animals. This can be seen in many book titles that include baby rabbits, bears, cats and dogs. Animals are very curious things to children, and sometimes they are fearful because of warnings from parents (“be careful around dogs”) or the fact that it is a new experience for them. In the absence of this fear, children often want to talk to animals hold them, stroke them or interact with them emotionally.
A study of dreams, carried out by Robert L. van de Castle PhD, says that 80% of children under 6 years old have dreams about animals.
In addition, animals are included in more than 90% of the characters in children’s pre-school books. It is very difficult to find a book in a nursery that does not include an animal of some sort. Plus most fluffy toys are animals too, teddy bears being the most popular and most enduring animal of them all.
As parents, we should do as much as we can to reunite children back into nature and start thinking and caring about animals more.