Kids and animals

A look at the roles animals can play in a child’s life
By Cara Mullin – Founder and owner of www.kidzworld.co.za

A young boy being nuzzled by a foal.
A young boy interacts with a foal.

Positive interactions between animals and children can promote the healthy physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional and social development of children.

To highlight the above let’s take a brief look at the roles animals can play in a child’s life

Pets:

Pets can be valued members of the family to which children develop strong attachments due to their non-judgmental nature. They provide:

  • unconditional affection and warmth (pets don’t care who you are or what you look like)
  • companionship
  • opportunities for exercise and play and for strengthening family bonds
  • a feeling of being needed
  • a source of amusement
  • a topic of interest to talk about with others which can help promote social skills
  • learning opportunities as they teach children to be empathetic, responsible and nurturing (pets encourage the gentler side of a child’s nature and help children understand the world outside of themselves and their own needs.)
  • being around pets exposes children to many types of germs which can help build their immune systems  (studies have shown children who have pets take fewer sick days off school)
  • a variety of pets in a home during the first year of a child’s life can decrease a child’s risk of developing certain allergies

Caution: Before purchasing a family pet, it is important you do sufficient research to ensure you choose the right pet for your circumstances. You need to take into account the cost of owning the pet over it’s lifetime, how much space the pet needs, how much time the pet takes up in caring for it, the size of the pet, the nature of the animal and your child’s personality. The wrong choice could result in the pet causing stress, fear and pain in a child’s life.

Teachers:

Children are less likely to forget what they have learnt when they are educated about the natural world and the importance thereof through real life experiences with animals.

Animals are also used to provide a stimulating and motivating learning environment in a variety of learning programmes or institutions.

  • Many schools incorporate animals in to the learning environment
  • Literacy programmes – Research has shown that reading to cats and dogs can encourage and improve literacy skills
  • Conservation
  • Farming and food
  • Pets teach children the responsibilities of daily living
  • Pets teach children about friendship and loyalty (children learn to form a mutual bond with their pets)

A day out at an animal farm can be educational, fun and memorable for a family.

Therapists:

Over the last 20 years animal-assisted therapy has been formally researched and applied in a variety of programmes.

  • AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.
  • AAT is used to treat the following conditions in children: Autism, ADHD, anxiety, aphasia, depression, low self esteem, physical disabilities and mental or physical trauma.
  • Pets offer an informal form of therapy for children as they help to combat loneliness, depression and stroking or playing with a pet can act as a form of stress release.

Aids:

Service animals, most commonly dogs, do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a child with a disability.

  • They help blind or visually impaired children
  • They can help deaf or hearing impaired children
  • They also help children in wheelchairs by fetching and retrieving items, opening and closing doors and switching lights on and off
  • They can assist children who have seizures by warning the child in advance of the seizure or alerting another person of a child’s seizure

Source of inspiration:

  • When children read or hear about or meet animals who have overcome big challenges, they are inspired to do the same
    By overcoming the loss of her tail, Winter the dolphin has offered inspiration to many children who have disabilities.  (Read about these on the seewinter.com website)
  • Animals can encourage social responsibility in children who are inspired by animals or love them enough to want to raise money to help them. If they read or hear about stories of how animals have helped others they may be inspired to do the same.

“A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world. Friendship retains its traditional values and securities in one’s relationship with one’s pet. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one’s pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend — regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us.”

- Dr. Boris Levinson, child psychologist