Caring for animals in childcare settings
I doubt there are many people who would argue against teaching children about being kind to animals as part of their development. But just how active should we be in this development, in our role as education and childcare professionals? Is this something that happens naturally or do we need to make a place for it in the work that we do in our Early Years settings?
Considering the needs of another living being, whether human or non-human, is certainly one of the building blocks of empathy and, in turn, developing empathy in young people is a building block to a more compassionate society. Learning to talk about feelings and emotions forms part of a child’s Personal and Social Development, according to the EYFS requirements for England. In Wales, the Foundation Phase states that children should learn to demonstrate care, responsibility, concern and respect for all living things. Some children see excellent examples of this in the home, but sadly others don’t.
As practitioners in Early Years settings, how can we go about introducing children to the concept of animals that have needs and are living, feeling beings? Should we all dash out to the local pet shop to buy pets for our settings so that children can learn hands-on about how to care for them? A resounding “No!” would be my answer to this. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 states clearly that all owners have a legal duty to meet the five welfare needs of any animal in their care. This means providing them with:
- A suitable diet, including access to fresh water at all times
- A suitable place to live
- The right kind of company, depending on the species
- The space and opportunity to behave normally
- Protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease
These needs can be extremely difficult to meet to a high standard in some early years settings – and, as practitioners, we always want to provide children with examples of best practice. Uncertainties around care such as when the (non-home-based) setting is closed, responsibility for meeting expenses (such as unexpected vet bills!) and the necessary close supervision of interactions between pets and children could lead to the animal’s welfare or child’s wellbeing being compromised. In addition to this, childcare settings can sometimes be noisy and frightening places for animals. For nocturnal animals, such as hamsters, being woken up at a time when nature tells you that you should be sleeping can be stressful.
There are many ways that we can introduce children to the concept of caring for animals, without encountering the difficulties considered above, by enhancing the provision that we already make for their learning.
- Introduce a soft toy dog or cat into your home role play area. You could also have food and water bowls, a bed, a lead, a brush, and so forth to make it more realistic along with the vet’s phone number beside the phone.
- When the children are playing with their soft toy ‘pet’, you could ask them how they would care for their pet if they were to go away on holiday.
- Demonstrate how to handle the “pet”, stressing the importance of gentle handling, being quiet around them, and stroking their fur in the direction in which it grows.
- When you’re outside and can spot various animals and creatures, such as birds and minibeasts, talk to the children about what the animal might be doing, where it might be going and observe the animal’s natural behaviour from a safe distance.
- Play at being “gentle giants” when coming across minibeasts outdoors, so as not to harm them.
- If a farm playset is being used, talk to children about what the animals need to be happy and healthy. What should the farmer do if there is a hole in the fence? What if it is a cold morning and the water trough has ice on it?
The above ideas are simple but effective ways to get children to think about animals as living things with feelings, rather than toys. We all know how much of an influence our own attitudes and behaviours have on the children in our care, and so the way that we talk about and treat animals can have a positive impact and help to foster empathy.
If you do already have animals in your setting, the RSPCA provides guidance on what you need to consider in our publication Education and Animals. For further ideas, activities and free downloadable materials, visit the RSPCA education web pages at www.rspca.org.uk/education
About the author
Claire Morris - Formal Education Manager at RSPCA. Before joining the education department of the RSPCA, Claire was a primary school teacher for 12 years, with most of those spent teaching Reception classes. Now in her role as Formal Education Manager, she leads a small team of Education Training and Development Advisers who offer free training sessions to both trainee and qualified teachers and education professionals, demonstrating how we can educate children and young people about animal welfare. She is delighted to have been asked to blog for PACEY.