Keeping animals in early childhood settings

Published on Tuesday, 18 August 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Animals inspire a sense of delight and curiosity among children and introducing an animal to an early childhood education setting can provide opportunities for educators to involve young children in unique learning experiences and explorations. But whether to have a permanent pet or frequent animal visits throughout the year depends on many factors and requires careful consideration.

Education with living creatures in an early childhood setting requires interacting with animals, both free-living and domestic, recognising that being with or in proximity to animals is valuable and important in its own right.

Research recognises the importance of animals in children’s lives and educators can capitalise on this animal-child connection to support learning about the natural world, ecology and relationships. Whether it’s a permanent pet, such as a fish, insect or bird, or a short term visit by a therapy dog or a farm animal incursion, these encounters offer young children valuable life lessons, stress relief and fun.

What the research says about pet connections

Research shows that relationships with animals can support the development of empathy and in children engaging with animals can be therapeutic, ease tension, anxiety and stress.  A pet can also provide a sense of comfort and encourage children to speak or express their innermost feelings or questions.

In addition, pets can help children develop a sense of responsibility and under the sensitive direction of an educator, they can provide important lessons about the cycle of life. Of particular importance within the discipline of early childhood education, animal interactions seem to result in a sense of care toward other creatures and the natural environment.

A well-chosen classroom pet can teach children important values like compassion, respect, while giving them a physical connection with animals. This relationship to a living creature can be powerful motivators for learning while fostering a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around them.

Weighing up the options

Keeping a permanent pet is a long-term commitment and despite the benefits for children, it can include risks. The wellbeing and safety of the children and the animal is essential to ensure a positive experience for all.

Choosing the right animal is a serious business requiring research, family and staff consultation, and thorough planning. It’s essential to articulate and examine the intended educational and developmental outcomes of including a pet in the environment.

Here are a few other important questions to consider:

  • What type of pet? Do you want a pet the children can pick up and handle?
  • What are the local regulations and advice in your area regarding pets in early childhood settings?
  • How much can be spent on the care of this pet?
  • What is the procedure if the animal gets sick?
  • Who cares for it during holidays or over a long weekend?
  • What are the health and safety risks?
  • How much space do you have for the pet and is it adequate?

According to a survey done by Educa three of the most popular resident classroom pets are fish, budgies and guinea pigs. As part of the risk assessment issues such as allergies from pet dander, animals biting and germs (for example parasites that may be transferred by some pets) need to be factored into the decision-making process.

Policies and procedures will need to be put in place to minimise identified risks and to promote best practice. This should include details such as:

  • A strict hand wash and dry routine after touching animals
  • Pet area's should be cleaned regularly and children should not assist in cleaning fish tanks or animal’s pen
  • Children should not put their faces close to an animals
  • Ensuring animal welfare issues are addressed
  • Guidelines for educator supervision of children and a plan to support an educator's knowledge of the pet, care requirements and learning outcomes.

The alternatives: temporary and visiting animals

Keeping animals is not appropriate for every service, and if the permanent pet option sounds a bit too difficult there are alternatives. Temporary or visiting animals offer plenty of opportunities for children to interact with animals throughout the year while still delivering learning opportunities and beneficial outcomes.

The inclusion of temporary animals is already well established in many early childhood services. Egg hatching programs like chickens or ducklings, tadpoles and caterpillars that hatch into butterflies provide the experience of looking at life cycles and learning through lived experiences.

Incursions such as farm animals and reptile keepers can be organised to give children a hands-on-experience and the benefit of knowledge and expertise from the animal handler. Even appropriate family pets could visit the service for a short-term visit and a show-and-tell on caring for a pet.

Another alternative growing in popularity is arranging for therapy dogs to visit the classroom. Research shows these trained dogs can reduce stress physiologically and increase attachment responses that trigger oxytocin – a hormone that increases trust in humans. Therapy dogs have been shown to teach empathy and social skills, reduce anxiety in children, they can be soothing and increase motivation for learning.

Finally, there are the creatures that surround us in the outdoors. In every natural setting there is an abundance of animal life that can deliver rewarding experiences for children. Try these ideas to bring more creatures into your early childcare environment:

Early care and education settings are prime opportunities to nurture curiosity about animals and to promote learning by inviting connections and involvement with the living world around us.

No matter whether children have a resident pet or animals visiting the classroom, the interactions and hands-on experience invites kindness and respect towards all creatures and allows an exciting pathway to learn valuable life lessons with the support of an educator. 

Resources and further reading

New Zealand Guidelines for Early learning services me ngā kōhanga reo

 He Kupu: Supporting children’s social and emotional development through pets in the ECE context

Natural Start Alliance: Nurturing Children’s Love for Animals

Lily- The Goodstart therapy dog

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