Learning and Development

How Pets Benefits Children in the Early Years

Exotic creatures may fire young children’s imaginations, but even humble domestic pets can greatly benefit their development, says Judit Horvath…

Why do humans keep pets? Samuel Butler said: “The greatest pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too.” Children love animals for the very simple reason that in a relationship with a pet they can be ‘just’ themselves, with no rules, measures, expectations or outcomes but purely with love and natural awe.

A couple of years ago, a little boy in our nursery very excitedly described a tiger he had seen in the corridor. The story rapidly evolved into part of our daily life, everyone routinely greeting the tiger, leaving food and birthday presents behind and learning more about the likes and dislikes of a tiger – as good pet owners would do. Adults working or living with young children would hardly call a tiger a pet, but the story of our Nursery Tiger clearly shows the children’s innate need to investigate, to care, to belong and to feel needed.

The research

Animals, in particular pets, are part of many children’s lives, but adult involvement, open discussions and careful planning are necessary to help make pet ownership a positive experience for everyone. Despite the potential dangers, carers still choose to involve pets in family life as the child who learns to care for an animal, and treat it nicely and patiently, may get invaluable training in learning to treat people the same way. Children who have pet animals at home have stronger immune systems and show higher attendance rates in their educational settings, studies suggest.

Many educational settings recognise the beneficial effects that animal encounters hold for children too. The role of animals, especially pets, has recently been the focus of developmental research; theories and models of child development concentrate on different aspects of development in the light of relationships with animals. Research data indicates that having a pet is positively correlated with feelings of importance, social competence and self-esteem. In addition, significant differences have been found between pet owners and non-owners: there are higher levels of self-concept, self-esteem and autonomy in pre-adolescent pet owners (Covert et al. 1985; Davis and Juhasz 1985; Davis 1987; Van Houtte and Jarvis 1995). Children with pets, it seems, are better socially integrated, have wider social networks and are more popular with their classmates too (Endenburg and Baarda 1995).

The care of pets can also promote certain social values and skills in children (empathy and pro-social behaviour), taking responsibilities as well as acquisition of certain habits (tidiness, punctuality, self-discipline), which contribute greatly to better coping skills both at home and in educational environments (Bryant 1985; Melson and Fogel 1988; Poresky and Hendrix 1990). Poresky et al. associated improved cognitive development with the bond between children and pets, and it has been suggested that pet ownership might facilitate language acquisition and enhance verbal skills in children.

Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also nurture non-verbal communication, compassion and empathy. Pets can serve different purposes for children: they can be safe keepers of secrets and private thoughts; they provide lessons about life (reproduction, birth, illnesses, accidents, death, and bereavement); they provide a connection to nature; and they can teach respect for all living things. They make loyal, lovable friends and owning them fulfils basic physical and emotional needs – from physical activity, comfort, contact and affection to experience with loss.

What we need to do

These benefits do not come about by magic, however. Keeping animals in nursery settings has potential dangers, but these can be eliminated with planned risk management and careful behaviour control.

Firstly, children and carers alike must realise that cartoon animals are fantasy; in educational environments, all pets must be taught how to act around children, and all children must be taught how to act around animals. Practitioners must teach children how to act in a controlled manner and how to control the mannerly animals, and should use treat-reward training for the pets to appropriately approach the children. All suitable nursery pets (Guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, even fish) can be taught simple tricks with rewards. Additionally, practitioners should hand-feed treats while cuddling (restraining), stroking and fondling (examining) the animals, their ears, paws or belly. The animals will soon learn to positively associate restraint and examination with food.

Keeping pets clean and groomed is one of the best ways to minimise children’s exposure to allergens. Shampooing a pet once a week with a proper shampoo prevents dander building up and using a conditioner afterwards keeps the skin moisturised and reduces the allergens stored up on the pet’s fur. Grooming the pet outside, or in an area where the air won’t circulate, is also preferable. Practitioners need to check that the pets are in good health – immunisations should be up-to-date and regular check-ups at the vets can also spot any possible infections.

The Tiger Pet Project

Keeping pets teaches children about all aspects of life and fits in perfectly with our nursery’s education method, the Project Approach. Children have a strong disposition to explore and discover and the Project Approach builds on this natural curiosity, enabling them to interact, question, connect, problem solve, communicate, reflect and more. This kind of authentic learning extends beyond the classroom to each child’s home, community, nation, and the world. In the Tiger Project we planned to create a suitable home for our pet. The teachers planned provocations (books, art work, photos, short films) in relation to the topic, and they observed and listened to the children’s comments and conversations (Communication and language). A provocation was an experience organised by an adult that invited children’s curiosity and the materials were arranged in such a way as to prompt children’s exploration (Understanding the world). In the next phase the children tried to find answers to their questions about the tiger. We had field visits and visitors (vet nurses, zoo worker, guide dog owner and police dog owner) to learn more about animals. We also had representation sessions where the children made calculations, drawings (Mathematics) and created models with the help of a product designer and a maintenance manager (Expressive art and design).

Block play and dramatic play helped the children to gain more knowledge about tiger behaviour (Personal, social and emotional development, Physical development). Finally, summarising the plans and ideas of the group, we created a house for our pet and wrote our own Tiger Pet Care Booklet (Literacy). In the culminating phase, the progress of the individual children and the group became a learning story to be shared with the community of peers, parents and educators.

Further reading

Bryant, B. K. The richness of the child pet relationship: A consideration of both benefits and costs of pets to children. Anthrozoos, 3(4) (1990)

Covert, A. M., Whiren, A. P., Keith, J. and Nelson, C. Pets, early adolescents and families. Marriage and Family Review 8 (1985)

Davis, J. H. and Juhasz, A. M. The preadolescent pet bond and psychological development. Marriage and Family Review 8 (1985)

Endenburg N. and Baarda B. The role of pets in enhancing human well-being: Effects on child development. In The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interaction: Benefits and Responsibilities of Pet Ownership, ed. I. H. Robinson (1995)

Melson, G. F. The role of pets in the development of children’s nurturance. Paper presented to the annual meeting of the Delta Society (1987)

Poresky, R. H. and Hendrix, C. Developmental benefits of pets for young children. Paper presented at the Delta Society 7th Annual Conference (1990)

Van Houtte, B. and Jarvis, P. A. The role of pets in pre-adolescent psychosocial development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 16 (1995)

Judit Horvath is a nursery management adviser.