Five ways animals can help children learn better

The authors of a new book explain how interacting with animals brings huge social, emotional and educational benefits for kids. Lisa Salmon reports

Participating in meaningful caring activities can promote a child’s sense of confidence and self-worth
Participating in meaningful caring activities can promote a child’s sense of confidence and self-worth

NEARLY all children love animals – usually much more than they love learning. So why not put the two together, to see if animals can help children learn?

It’s not a new idea, but it has been gathering pace in recent years, and before the latest lockdown many teachers had got into the habit of taking animals – like the school rabbit or their own dog – into lessons.

And while creatures, ranging from hamsters, dogs and lizards to larger (not so school-friendly) animals like horses, can boost children’s wellbeing, animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) can also help children’s learning and development.

In science, children can learn about the animals themselves but it goes much further than that. In other lessons, the presence of animals can make children feel more relaxed, and it can also boost their learning in less obvious areas like social and emotional development.

Now the whole area of AAIs has been addressed in a new book, Tails from the Classroom, by Swansea University education specialist Dr Helen Lewis, and education inspector Dr Russell Grigg, Both have been working with animals in schools for years.

“Most children’s animal-loving nature, which stretches back to time immemorial, is a wonderful basis for teachers and parents to build on,” says Grigg.

“Animals don’t worry about your appearance, class or background. In a chaotic world they’re a dependable friend, offering children much-needed emotional security and comfort.”

And Lewis adds: “There’s no doubt the presence of an animal can bring immense benefits to many learners. But we must remember not every animal will enjoy being in an educational environment. Animals are capable of feeling complex emotions, and they express these in sophisticated ways.

“If we choose to involve them in classrooms we must acknowledge these voices, treating them as equal participants, not merely as teaching resources.”

Here, Lewis and Grigg outline how interacting with animals can benefit children…

1. Social behaviour

Caring for animals promotes a sense of responsibility, explains Lewis, and children develop empathy as they learn to recognise when animals are thirsty, tired or hot and this is an important step in becoming less self-centred themselves.

“Participating in meaningful caring activities can promote a child’s sense of confidence and self-worth and may foster a lasting affinity with the natural world,” she says. “Animals can become a non-judgmental friend.”

Children also learn how to take turns caring for animals, and they don’t feel pressurised by animals in the same way they may with their peers.

2. Emotional wellbeing

A relationship with an animal can encourage a sense of security and belonging, says Grigg. “Children who lack confidence in speaking to humans can address this by gaining confidence through talking to animals,” he explains.

“Animals provide very clear ‘biofeedback’ about their emotions via their body language – so when animals like dogs give feedback, whether it’s wagging a tail or moving away, children learn to regulate their own behaviour.

“They learn the importance of being calm around animals and to identify signs of stress. Children with particular anxieties find it comforting to know they’re not alone – to hear that even great big dogs have fears, such as thunder or fireworks.”

In addition, some children with attachment difficulties find it much easier to be around animals, which can help them learn to develop bonds with humans.

“Recently we’ve found lots of schools have used animals to help children return to school after lockdowns, while some have involved animals in online lessons during the pandemic,” adds Grigg.

3. Language, literacy and communication

Children can develop speaking and listening skills through talking about an animal’s needs with its owner, explains Lewis. “They need to listen carefully to instructions on how to care for the animal, or to give simple instructions to the school dog.

“They can become more confident in talking or reading to animals, who are a non-critical audience, and when children go home they can tell their parents about the visit of a dog or other animal to school, creating a conversation.”

Lewis says reading-to-dogs schemes, like the Read2Dogs scheme run by the animal therapy charity Pets as Therapy (currently a virtual service while schools are shut during lockdown), or the John Burns Foundation’s Burns By Your Side reading with dogs scheme, can motivate and engage reluctant readers.

“Burns By Your Side reading with dogs encourages children to improve their reading and literacy,” says Melanie Jones of the John Burns Foundation. “The child and the dog build up a special relationship which encourages children to want to read because it’s fun and not just because they have to. Over the years we’ve witnessed so much magic between the readers and the dogs.”

4. Physical development

Simply walking a dog brings huge physical and physiological benefits, Grigg points out. “Studies have shown dog owners are four times more likely to meet recommended physical activity guidelines,” he says.

“And when a child physically stretches out and smooths an animal, it releases endorphins in the nervous system, which can reduce anxiety.”

In addition, through interacting with animals, by grooming or feeding for example, children and young people develop a range of fine and gross motor skills. Those with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, can benefit from equine-assisted therapy as well, he says.

5. Imagination, curiosity and creativity

“We should also not forget most children find animals fascinating,” says Lewis. “Animals have many seemingly superpowers – take, for example, a dog’s sense of smell or hearing, a fish’s ability to live underwater or a bird’s ability to fly.

“These can capture children’s imaginations and curiosity, generating questions and a desire to find out more.

“They can role-play animal characters, developing a range of social and imaginative skills as they do so. Throughout the world, children are busy developing research skills in animal-themed school projects because teachers know the power animals have to inspire and motivate their students.”

:: Tails from the Classroom by Helen Lewis & Russell Grigg is published by Crown House, priced £16.99.