Julie Schneider of Preschool Engineer explains how having animals in her childrens' lives has made a huge impact in their learning and social skills. For more great insights visit Julie fantastic blog: Preschool Engineering.
Anna’s very first laugh was elicited by our neighbor’s joyful bounding dog. From that moment on, her interest in animals, primarily dogs, has proliferated. She sleeps with no fewer than six stuffed doggies. Her favorite book is “Hello Kitty, Hello Summer,” featuring Hello Kitty and friends, because she can greet all the animals depicted on its pages. When I tell her we are going to see her Aunt and Uncle she always adds, “and Ellie,” who is my sister’s dog; and, she becomes beyond excited when we get to meet and greet dogs at the neighborhood park. Even her musical preferences include dogs as their topic (twentydogs.com). As her mother, I see her interest in animals as more than childish fancy. Anna is learning many social courtesies, not least of which is empathy.
Jane Healy author of "Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence" explains that young children are not developmentally capable of empathy. For the first five years of life a child’s priority is self-formation and, at this age, I think an egocentric way of life should be encouraged. Janet Lansbury, from Elevating Child Care agrees, "By watching them play we foster independence and self-confidence. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot lay the groundwork for our children to become considerate people."
What does empathy look like in a toddler? I think it is any prosocial behavior when the child develops interest in others or identifies similarities and differences between herself and another living thing. During the egocentric year(s) of toddlerhood it begins and ends with a child learning about herself.
Like many one and a half year olds, Anna is excited to learn and name all her body parts. She sits in her car seat starting “conversations” by naming her eyes, ears, nose and toes. Then she steers the conversation to her favorite animal, Ellie, and tells me that Ellie has eyes, ears, a nose and toes, too. There it is - my opportunity to scaffold Anna’s learning empathy. I ask her, “Do you think Ellie likes ____?” and “Do you like ____?” and “Does your brother like ____?” Inevitably, Anna steers the conversation back to everyone’s body parts and I feel satisfied to know that she thinks about herself as well as others.
I have to admit that my interest in teaching her empathy with animals is rooted in my concern for her safety. I have spent the last year teaching her how to approach a dog and its owner - slowly, asking permission, letting the dog sniff her hand before trying to gently touch its furry back. All the while, we discuss the dog’s eyes, ears, nose and tail. We discuss everyone’s emotions: Anna is gleeful when a dog is happy and affectionate; she is cautious when a dog seems shy; and she turns apathetic when a dog appears aloof. If that isn't empathy then I don't know what is.
All the education that could be done with animals can be analyzed to death and, believe me, sometimes I’m that person who wonders what my child is learning. However, I remind myself that all the social learning between a child and an animal pales in comparison to the simple joys of play. Indeed, we all seem happiest when I watch Anna throw rocks and sticks into the shallow waters of a Lake Huron bay for Ellie to fetch - giggles abound.