Cuddly Critters or Brain Boosters? How Childcare Pets Make Children Smarter
5 August 2022
Are you wondering if a pet is right for your child? Check out our blog to see the science behind how pets make children smarter!
Are you considering if a pet is right for your child? And how common are they anyway? Well, according to a survey from Animal Medicines Australia, a whopping 64% of Australian households own a pet. To put that into numbers, that’s more than five million dogs, four million cats, five-and-a-half million birds, eleven million fish and hundreds of thousands of small mammals, reptiles and insects. In total, there’s over 29 million pets which is more than the population of Australia!
It’s clear that Australians are pet crazy, as two thirds of households without pets reported wanting one, and almost 90% of pet owners said their furry friends had a positive impact on their lives. But what exactly are these benefits? (Other than late night cuddles, of course).
As it turns out, pets may bring about a wealth of psychological and developmental benefits. And it’s not just for you – many studies have suggested children may benefit the most from pets such as increased empathy, reduced anxiety, a greater understanding of responsibility and even heightened cognitive function.
That’s why at Explorers Early Learning we embrace pets of all shapes and sizes. We have Fred the Fish, Georgie the Cockatoo, Panino and Provolone the rabbits and so many more! Centre pets are a favourite for the little ones, as they teach them about responsibility, the environment and empathy for all living things.
One of the most important lessons for childhood development is empathy. It teaches children that the world extends beyond themselves to a network of individuals with their own beliefs, emotions and desires. Children begin grappling with empathy as early as two years old, and it teaches them that their actions and responses to situations have a direct impact on how others feel and why that’s important.
Numerous studies have highlighted how introducing animals to children at an early age increases levels of empathy, predominately among those who care for both cats and dogs, and even more so for horse and bird owners.
Pets have also regularly been linked to decreased depression, anxiety and negative thought patterns across all age groups.
Pets teach children that not everything will be given to them, and that they have power and responsibility over other living things. Pets need food, water, exercise, shelter, attention and love – lots and lots of love!
This is a confronting concept for toddlers, so pets provide a safe entry point into deconstructing their relationships with other living beings. They see how receptive animals are to affection, which can be a steppingstone for them to transfer these skills to the more complex social interactions with peers, Educators and society at large.
While these lessons are important, it’s vital for parents to also exercise responsibility when introducing children to pets. Dr Hayley Christian of the University of Western Australia outlines that while younger children, particularly between ages two and five, learn a great deal from pets, they must be under parental supervision at all times:
‘Never leave your child unsupervised with a pet. Young children are still learning so many things. Teaching them from an early age to read dog and cat body signs is important. Also, how to be gentle and how to interact with dogs in public including how to greet them.’
Improve Cognitive Function
Studies have suggested how pet ownership may bring about physical benefits, such as reduced blood pressure, however more recent studies are discovering that they may also have cognitive boosts. According to neurologist Dr. Tiffany Braley, “results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.” This could lead to improved memory, problem-solving abilities and concentration – all key skills for the future success of your child.
Pets also encourage children to articulate their thoughts and feelings which develops rational thinking skills and socialisation. As pets don’t judge, criticise or spill your darkest secrets, children see pets as confidants and articulate their anxieties in a safe, controlled environment.
Dr. Christian argues that this may boost ‘educational and social development in children and adolescents’ that own pets which ‘tend to have greater self-esteem, less loneliness, and enhanced social skills.’
Pets in Childcare
Childcare centres, kindergartens and primary schools are embracing class pets more and more as research continues to develop in EQ and the role of empathy. In fact, the Australia Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority have a detailed information sheet outlining the guidelines for childcare pets. The sheet also suggests that ‘encouraging direct contact and developing bonds with animals can help children build empathy’ and ‘learn about the life cycle and relationships and improve communication.’
We wholeheartedly embrace pets at Explorers Early Learning, believing that they serve as the ‘Fourth Teacher’ (the first three being parents, educators, and the environment) which is one of the pillars of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Children at Explorers care for Centre pets, feed them, love them and even give them names!
These lessons also extend beyond the Centre. Excursions to zoos, sanctuaries and parks are commonplace, and wildlife experts and environmentalists love visiting to share their knowledge and wisdom about how to live peacefully with the natural world.
So, it doesn’t matter if you or your little ones prefer dogs, cats, fish, rabbits, snakes or spiders – it’s about caring for another life. This is the most valuable lesson pets teach both children and adults alike. The world is bigger than ourselves and that carries responsibility, so it pays to take care of each other… it may be more beneficial than you think.