In 1984, Harvard biologist Edward Osborne Wilson introduced the Biophilia Hypothesis (BET) – an idea that humans have an innate tendency to connect with other forms of life, such as plants and animals. Over the years, many educators have incorporated living elements into the classroom, especially in kindergarten, or even moved classes outdoors to provide playtime opportunities and a closer connection with nature. Unlike adults, who tend to appreciate animals based on their degree of usefulness (not necessarily growing them for meat, leather, or wool, but also to offer companionship), children seem to appreciate animals simply because they exist – because they are creatures just like us, and that alone is a good enough reason to respect and care for them. Biophilia is already a part of design and architecture – now it’s time for widespread adoption in education.
Nurturing children’s love and respect towards animals goes beyond the physical and mental health benefits of pet ownership – as emphasized by data from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, pet ownership not only encourages children to be more active but also teaches them about facts of life such as reproduction, birth, death, and bereavement from an early age. In addition, there is emerging evidence that animal interaction is beneficial to children with autism, ADHD, and other similar conditions and that it can instill responsible behavior in the children who care for them.
In the US, it is estimated that around 70% of households have at least one pet. Among the households with small children that do not have a pet, there is a common concern among parents that children will not know how to look after the animals or that they will even hurt them without realizing it. In general, children of the ages of 3-4 tend to squish animals, and this tendency is often interpreted as aggressive behavior, but it’s actually a way for kids to test their motor functions, learn how to use their muscles, and discover what happens if they interact with the world around them. In reality, through careful behavior management, children can learn boundaries and develop an awareness of animal needs.
Animal observation builds tolerance, compassion, and sensitivity.
Contrary to popular belief, nurturing a love of animals in children doesn’t start with getting them a puppy or kitten. It starts with observation – this is extremely important, especially if children are too young to understand how to look after an animal or being around animals poses safety concerns.
When children observe animals – at home, in nature, or in captivity – that opens up a new world for them. They learn that living beings can look, move, sleep, eat, and behave differently from them. Exploring that world, even from afar, is perceived as a privilege, which not only creates an enormous joy of discovery, but also exposes kids to diversity from an early age. Recent studies have shown that children who have positive experiences with animals when they are little are more likely to transfer feelings of kindness, empathy, and tolerance towards other living beings.
Education at home and at school
Depending on the children’s age and level of independence, educators and parents can nurture a love of animals in different ways:
- Encouraging conversation, answering all the child’s questions about animals, and offering them age-appropriate materials about them.
- Engaging in role playing games as animals to encourage discovery and empathy towards them.
- Observation. Children should spend as much time as possible outdoors, simply observing animals and insects in their natural habitat. Instead of being scolded for shouting at animals or trying to catch them, children should instead be taught that a certain action will have different repercussions.
- Inviting kids to imagine what it would be like to be a certain animal. Apart from boosting imagination and language skills, this exercise builds empathy; children can learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and anticipate their needs.
- Creating awareness of animal needs by using animations and other non-formal education methods.
- For homes with pets, parents should encourage children (under supervision) to feed and look after the animals. Engaging in creative projects, such as creating a collage with family photos that include the pet, will also instill in kids the idea that animals are part of the family and deserve to be treated with the same kindness and respect.
Volunteering for animal rights NGOs
Advocating for animal rights and protecting the natural habitat of endangered species is a mission that every child should grow up pursuing. If a child is old enough, volunteering for an animal rights NGO is not only a fantastic way of boosting social skills, nurturing self-confidence, and boosting independence, but also a way of developing sensitivity, compassion, and empathy.
Even in families that do not have pets, volunteering provides an opportunity to learn and grow emotionally. For examples, these NGOs have created special programs through which children can help animals and get involved in a noble cause from an early age:
- Advocate for Animals, by Doing Good Together teaches children about the endangered animals in their state and encourages them to advocate for their needs through creative art projects and advocacy letters.
- The Humane Society provides age-appropriate volunteering projects for animals. For example, children can register to be Rescue Readers and read stories to animals in shelters who are waiting to be adopted, or they can start a fundraiser to support wildlife conservation.
- The Animal Rights Center in Japan works with schools and universities to organize community exercises and study groups focused on animal rights activism.
- Young Voices for Animals is an Australian NGO that creates nationwide workshops and events to encourage and educate young animal rights activists.
- Friends of Animals has a “just for kids” program that teaches children how to take action to protect animal rights.
Children have innate compassion and curiosity towards animals. Through early education and volunteering, we can learn to nurture this compassion and grow empathetic adults who care about other people and the planet as a whole.