There’s no doubt that the UK is a nation of animal lovers! You only have to look around at the number of us who co-habit with pets of every shape and size, the predominance of pet shops, and the amount we spend on our pets each year, which currently runs into the tens of billions of pounds. Pets are big business, but we rarely count their worth in money. In fact, most of us have admitted we would rather reduce spending on ourselves than our pets, because our pets can melt the heart of even the toughest cynic, remind us of our humanity, our unity and our underlying need for unconditional love.
Animals have anecdotally been reported as being of benefit to children by parents, teachers and childcare professionals for a number of years. Some of the benefits reported include:
Improving confidence and learning about unconditional love
– pets do not judge children with any moral compass; they simply give love and affection regardless of the child’s mood or recent behaviour (provided no negative behaviour has been directed towards the animal). Children often find animals comforting if they are feeling sad or low as the pet is always there to ‘listen to’ and ‘accept’ problems, when adults may not be.
Teaching empathy and respect
– animals need to be treated with love, empathy and respect, just like humans. And whilst they may enjoy a cuddle sometimes, at others, they may need space, feeding, grooming or walking. Children can learn to be empathetic to the needs of the animal and to recognise these needs without using words. This is an excellent skill to have in dealing with humans who may not be able to express emotions too well themselves.
Understanding the circle of life
– watching a pet be born, grow up, reproduce and eventually die, helps children learn about life and death. It may be a difficult lesson for most, but it is an essential one, especially if dealt with in a sensitive manner by the adults around them. It may be a cat or dog, hamster, fish or worm; the process of grieving and learning that ‘life goes on’ and memories will remain, is one that we all need to learn at some point.
Learning to appreciate nature and the natural world
– by observing animals, children can get an understanding and develop an appreciation for the natural world around them. They can observe different animal lifecycles and learn about reproduction by watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly or seeing the lambs being born at a local farm. With the right encouragement, it can also lead to an interest in the natural world and an appreciation for all forms of life on earth.
– although most animal species have been around on the planet a lot longer than humans, and as such, are very self-sufficient, the ones we have spent time domesticating, or those we keep in captivity, need our help to survive. This means they need feeding, cleaning out and exercising regularly, depending on the animal. This is a great way to teach children about looking after others and although no pet should be the sole responsibility of a child, they can learn to take on certain responsibilities (such as feeding or refilling water bottles) with the aid of a supervising adult.
Helping with communication
– we might not all be Dr Doolittle, but animals can still be useful in helping children communicate. Dogs are currently used in schools to help boost the confidence of children learning to read. The children read aloud to a dog, who listens without judgement and the children learn to feel calmer whilst reading. The very presence of animals can help children to start to speak as they learn to communicate with another living being.
As well as anecdotal reports, there have also been a number of scientific studies confirming some measurable benefits in children. Pets have been shown to(1,2):
- help lower blood pressure
- reduce stress and anxiety
- make recovery times shorter
- improve social interactions
- improve self-worth
- reduce loneliness and depression
In children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers found the children demonstrated more social behaviours and received more social approaches from their peers when animals were present, compared to when toys were present.3
What you need to consider
Bringing animals into your setting either as pets or with occasional visitors can have many benefits, but also requires careful planning and the safety of all children and adults is paramount. Therefore, before you consider bringing animals in, ensure that you have thought everything through, have the approval of parents, staff and governors and have suitable policies, risk-assessments and insurances in place. Remember to consider any allergies that children and staff may have, costs such as food costs or vet bills, and if bringing in a class pet such as a fish or hamster, determine who is going to look after it during the weekends and holidays.
Ways to introduce more animals into setting
Here are some ways you can introduce more animals, without breaking the bank.
- Visit a local farm or petting zoo – this can be an easy way to get children to pet animals and discover more about the natural world
- Incubate some fertilised chicken eggs and raise some chicks
- Order a butterfly nursery and teach the children about their lifecycle
- Set up a fish tank – this can offer sensory and visual stimulation too
- Introduce some rabbits and/or guinea pigs but ensure they can be properly looked after
- Start a worm farm – another great way to introduce children to natural science
- Feed the birds/local wildlife – set up some feeding/watering stations to welcome some British wildlife to your garden
- Go on a bug or mini-beast hunt – you can do this in your outside space or at a local park
However you choose to introduce more animal interactions in your setting, we’d love to hear from you and see your pictures. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.