Taking a young child to a farm or a house where there are baby animals, we get a chance to witness their essential instinct to care for, nurture and connect with the natural world. These are the building blocks of a relationship with nature; a relationship that we as parents must commit to fostering if a child is to grow up with a healthy respect for the world around them. Research shows that, from an early age, a child develops empathy through interaction with animals – both real and imagined.
How can we enhance this natural empathy?
Spending time outside in natural surroundings and engaging with nature through talking, books and collecting objects such as stones, sticks, shells or leaves etc. are other ways in which to promote biophillia. One of the very best ways to enhance a relationship with nature is through having pets in the home. Through interacting with the animal, children learn about caring for and nurturing others. They experience empathy, kindness, respect and mutual affection. Books featuring animals and make-believe animals – toys and imaginary – are all important for this empathy too.
Animals as therapy
Children and animals have always shared a special bond, often beyond the comprehension of adults. People who had pets as children often remember the unique and unbreakable bond they shared with their beloved sidekick, whether it was a dog or a rat. Many child therapists use animals as a way of ‘reaching’ children who, for whatever reason, struggle to make human connections. This kind of therapy is called Animal-Assisted Therapy or AAT. In recent years, Animal-Assisted Therapy has grown exponentially. In cases where children lack speech – either through trauma or disability – animals offer a freedom from the spoken word and a way of connecting that transcends speech. Children with a range of different needs, from autism to a history of abuse, have found solace and a sense of connection through animal therapy. Studies theorise that this is partly because animals ‘don’t judge’ which naturally boosts a child’s self-esteem and makes it easier for them to express themselves.
Research shows that this bond with animals has huge physiological and psychological benefits for humans in a variety of fields. Those with access to animals show increased wellbeing, motivation and general health in many studies. Simply stroking a pet decreases blood pressure and slows the heart rate, leading to a healthier cardiovascular system. In one study, pet-owning patients who had recently had operative surgery recovered quicker and with fewer incidences of anxiety or recourse to medication than those without animals in the home. In patients with psychiatric conditions, animals had a calming effect, reducing anxiety and fear and improving patient outlook.
Nurturing an animal at home
Children, the elderly and our most vulnerable members of society are those perhaps most influenced by animal companionship. Because animals do not judge and do not compartmentalise people, their presence is soothing to those with less power or standing in society. Studies show that seeing an animal at rest creates a primal response of calm for many people.
Feeding the pet and making sure they have fresh water, keep their living or sleeping area clean, and taking them for walks if appropriate, are all ways in which children can help to care for their beloved pet. Gentle time such as resting and cuddling together further builds the child’s confidence and awareness of their capabilities. The sense that another being relies upon them can be extremely affirming for children with low self-esteem or behavioural difficulties. Animals are without doubt some of the greatest teachers our children can have and because their communication is all non-verbal they can connect on a very deep level. So, if your children are pestering you for a pet, their addition to the family might be just the thing to invite gentleness, calm and nurturing into your children’s lives.