Kids and Animals
By Nora Heston Tarte
Animal interactions are great for building social skills that help children interact with others. They can also be used to teach children about other topics. “Humans are naturally drawn to animals and other living things,” explains Gabby Hebert, the director of education at the Phoenix Zoo. “Animals are a great hook for almost any learning opportunity for children.”
Animal interactions can be used to teach the most basic lessons to children. “Animal interactions… help young children with basic development and learning, such as counting the legs on an animal, comparing and contrasting themselves to the animals, talking about the animals that they see,” Gabby says. “Essentially the animal piques their interest and helps drive all kinds of learning.”
Having a pet at home offers additional benefits. Feeding an animal, observing their behavior, learning how to appropriately interact and show love, cleaning up after the animal and learning behavioral cause and effect all help a child build additional skills that support basic learning as well as social interaction.
Older children can use animals as the basis for learning about more complicated topics including science skills and concepts. For example, children can learn observation skills by watching animals. Staffers at the Phoenix Zoo encourage science and math thinking by asking how a student would build an enclosure for a lion that mimics their home and encourages naturalistic behaviors or how to calculate the diet for a polar bear. These interactions also challenge children to be creative both in their thinking and solutions while using a common interest to create engagement.
At the AZ Humane Society, staff focuses on building a generation prepared to become animal stewards. Lessons don’t revolve around the complicated science of animals, but rather the almost-human connection they provide.
Many children find comfort in animals and this can build their self-confidence. “For many children, animals provide non judging, unconditional love and a safe place to be themselves,” says Michelle Ramos, education and outreach manager at the Arizona Humane Society.
Riding horses is another way to encourage self-confidence. This is in large part due to the feelings kids gain by taking on a new task that feels difficult and succeeding. “They are sitting on a very large powerful animal but after a few rides and some instruction they learn they can control this big animal,” says Dede Bisch, a local Arabian horse trainer. Other social skills are built as the child learns how to control the horse through gentle guidance and respect, as opposed to forceful movements. As a result children learn how to treat others and how to practice patients.
Competing with a horse creates new opportunities for growth by introducing children to tough life lessons such as how to win and lose graciously, how to accept defeat, how to appreciate hard work and how to overcome negative feelings when a situation doesn’t seem fair.
For shy children, the benefits of pet ownership may ne amplified. In addition to other skills, shy children often come out of their shells around pets. For some children, pets can encourage friendship building because other children are more prone to approach and interact with a child who is playing with an animal. “A pet can be the bridge between a less socially outgoing child and other potential playmates,” Michelle points out.
Children by nature tend to be selfish, but caring for a pet can help change the me-centric mindset. When taking care of an animal, children begin to focus on the needs of others. For example, they know the pet goldfish has to eat and the family dog needs to go on walks. This, in turn, creates empathy and helps children learn how to care for other people in their lives. Horses in particular amplify a lot of these lessons because of their needs. “A large animal like a horse must be exercised daily [and] they must be fed at the same time every day at least three times a day,” Dede says. “The child will learn that this animal counts on them for everything.”
Get children in front of animals to reap the benefits of these creature interactions. Even without a family pet, the community is full of opportunities for kids to interact with different animals and learn valuable lessons from those interactions.
Early childhood programs at the Phoenix Zoo focus on smaller animals. The Critter Keeper program allows children ages 6 – 13 years to practice caring for an animal and talk with a zookeeper. Night Camp and Camp Zoo provide classroom visits with some of the zoo’s ambassador animals. Other programs offer a chance for kids to go behind-the-scenes to see how animals are cared for at the Zoo. For older children, ages 14 – 17, the ZooTeen program takes it a step further, allowing teenagers to become volunteer keeper assistants and care for the resident animals alongside the zookeepers.
“Our mission is to care for and conserve animals and their habitats,” Gabby says. “Our experiences can help children and youth and adults to have empathy for the world around them and the skills and confidence to make positive impacts at a local and global level.”
At the Humane Society, children ages 6-17 can participate in camps, scout workshops, reading programs and movie nights. In addition to cats and dogs, kids can get up close and personal with hedgehogs, snakes, ferrets, lizards and more.
Local riding stables provide opportunities for kids to reap the benefits of riding, competing and camaraderie. Check local stables for private lessons and start there. If your child advances, consider group lessons and eventually choose a discipline to compete in. Children can build very unique bonds with horses that sometimes don’t exist with other animals.