Children marvel at the wonders of animals large and small, wild and domesticated. How many times have you visited a zoo or farm with a child who is as excited as if it’s the first time? Details of a study in 2013* illustrated that young children in a room containing popular toys and animals spent more time looking, discussing and asking questions about the animals than playing with the toys. This illustrates that the use of animals in a learning environment can encourage communication and social interaction.
The use of animals in sensory integration, a theory developed by Dr. A. Jean Ayers (1972), has been shown in numerous studies to help improve social interaction and language development in children. The inhibitions that a child can have with people are quite often broken down as they interact with an animal. A child will often name a pet as a best friend and talk openly to it, this leads to them learning empathy, control to be gentle, kindness and responsibility.
Animals can be a fantastic tool for teaching in so many different ways. There is a wide scope for touch sensory development – is it soft, scaly or slimy? This leads to language development by using different descriptors and gross motor skills can be developed by encouraging the children to move around like their favourite animal – hop like a rabbit, act like a monkey or slither like a snake! Communication and social development can also be encouraged through simple pet picture show and tell.
On a wider scale, I love the opportunity that animal project work can lead to. By focussing on an animal group or animals from a particular country, the opportunity to learn about habitats, food chains, countries, nature and the contribution to the eco system is endless. Combine this with sensory play tray, creative art, stories, role play and individual research. A full project of this nature allows for all learning styles and all subject areas can be incorporated as part of the project.
All in the imagination
My children have always been fascinated by nature programmes, whether it’s the more serene David Attenborough or the excitable Steve Backshall. They gain an understanding of how big the world is as we pinpoint on the globe where the animals are from and also the special qualities of different species of the animal kingdom. This always transpires into small world imaginary play as the lion chases the zebra or the snake slithers after a rat! Quite often the animals gain voices, again leading to social and communication development.
Animals, either in real or toy form offer a vast scope of opportunities for sensory learning. This is the perfect time of year to start a bug hotel, visit a farm or get out in the fresh air to create some of your own animal antics!
*Young children’s interest in live animals – British Journal of Development Psychology 2013. Lo Bue, V., Bloom Pickard, M., Sherman, K., Axford, C. & De Loache, J.
About the author
Lisa Lane launched Sensory Scenes in 2014 with the aim to provide themed bags of fun for play, exploring and learning. With three boys of her own, she is passionate about children being able to manipulate, explore and use their imagination. Sensory Scenes’ themed bags are perfect for individual play, sensory tray play and themed subject planning.