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As a veterinarian, I have seen the power of the human-animal bond firsthand. Any pet parent can also attest to the joy that dogs, cats, and other animals bring to our lives. Pets not only provide companionship but contribute to the improved physical and mental health of their pet parents. Based on a mounting body of research, it now seems that they can also benefit our children and the learning process, both at home and in the classroom. Studies, including the 2019 Pets in the Classroom study, suggest a positive correlation between the presence of pets and improved academic performance and social skills in children. Let’s take a closer look at how pets can contribute to learning.
Living examples of biology
Observing and working with animals provides hands-on lessons for kids in the sciences. Pets offer interactive learning opportunities that engage students and foster a deeper understanding of biological concepts such as anatomy, physiology, animal lifecycles, habitats, disease, genetics, and more.
Teach responsibility and time management
Like many aspiring veterinarians, I grew up in a house full of animals. Our pets ranged from goldfish to dogs and cats to a parakeet and box turtle, and I remember doing extensive research on how best to care for each one. There is no doubt that having pets at home or in the classroom helps foster responsibility and time management in several ways.
- Pets need daily feeding, cleaning, and, in some cases, medication. This routine gives children the task of ensuring their pets are well taken care of, instilling a strong sense of responsibility.
- Caring for a pet requires a constant schedule. Adhering to this routine can help children understand and manage their time better.
- Balancing pet care with homework, chores, and other activities can be a valuable lesson in multi-tasking and prioritization.
- Pets are a long-term commitment, requiring years of continuous care.
Improve reading skills
Reading is a vital skill, and one that many children struggle with. Studies have shown that reading aloud to a dog improves both oral reading and reading comprehension (more so than reading aloud to an adult). Canine companions not only provide kids with loving snuggles and undivided attention, but their non-judgemental listening skills are key for boosting the confidence of reluctant readers. This allows kids to get the practice they need reading aloud without the fear of making mistakes or being ridiculed by peers. While pets don’t directly teach children to read, their supportive presence can create an environment conducive to learning. Some schools and libraries have even implemented “Read to a Dog” programs, sometimes involving local animal shelters. Of course, cuddling up with a family pet and a good book is also a great option.
The influence of animals on human creativity is as ancient as the earliest cave paintings and remains significant to this day. Here are some ways animals inspire creativity:
- Storytelling and Creative Writing: Animals often become central characters in children’s stories, inspiring imaginative narratives. Students can create adventures based on their pets’ behaviors or dream up entirely new creatures. This helps students express their creativity, develop language skills, and enhance emotional intelligence as they explore and portray animals’ perspectives.
- Art and Craft Projects: From sketching a pet cat lounging in the sun to sculpting a bird out of clay, animals provide endless inspiration for visual art. Drawing or painting animals allows students to observe closely and capture details, improving their artistic and fine motor skills.
- Drama and Role Play: Animals inspire role-play, allowing children to express themselves creatively. This could be reenacting the life cycle of a butterfly or imaginative play about a day in the life of a pet dog. Such activities foster creativity while teaching about animal behaviors.
- Dance and music: Animals can also inspire any type of creative art, including dance, movement, and music.
Alleviate anxiety and stress
The presence of classroom pets or therapy animals can help anxious children feel secure, calmer, and more receptive to learning. In fact, being around animals can even cause physiological changes in our bodies, such as lowering blood pressure and decreasing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).
Development of empathy and compassion
Pets can play a significant role in the development of students’ empathy, compassion, and understanding of non-verbal cues. They can also encourage teamwork and promote social interactions among students. A review of current research “suggests that overall, pet ownership may be beneficial to child and adolescent emotional, cognitive, behavioral, educational and social development.”
Provides movement breaks
Pets can have boundless energy, and interacting with animals gets children moving as well. Movement breaks are critical in maintaining focus and engagement, especially in learning environments.
Role in special education
For students with special needs, such as ADHD or Autism, pets can offer unique benefits. They provide a source of comfort, non-judgmental companionship, and can help improve concentration and social interaction. Grooming, feeding, and handling animals also engage the senses of touch, sound, sight, and smell in the learning process. Whether it’s dogs, horses, or fish, animals have been successfully used in special education and multiple types of therapy.
Challenges and considerations
Despite the numerous benefits, it’s important to consider the potential challenges of involving animals in the classroom and learning process. These can include allergenic concerns, fear of animals, health or hygiene issues, and dog bite safety. Establishing clear guidelines, and incorporating advice from experts, is critical for the safety and well-being of all humans and animals involved.