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Let’s Talk…Pets and “Social Critter Skills”

August 17, 2011

I am pleased to introduce a member of the Let’s Talk…Child Care blog team Lesia Oesterreich as she shares ideas about pets in early childhood programs.  Malisa

Most children love animals! Having a pet to talk to and touch can be a wonderful asset to an early childhood program. Helping children become acquainted with nature and the great outdoors also means introducing them to animals and other critters.

I must confess, I haven’t always been fond of animals and creepy crawlies. As a farm girl, I was raised to have a healthy respect for snakes, and taught to keep my distance from cattle hooves. I learned that farm cats are cute and cuddly at birth, but as an adult, I still have a scar from a from an old tom-cat that once pounced on me.

Despite all this, my grandfather wisely encouraged me to spend time observing and caring for animals. Each cow in our small herd had a name and we checked on their welfare every day. I learned to appreciate bee hives and the delicious honey they produced for our family. We took long walks and I learned about birds and butterflies.  And when I was sad and lonely, no one could console me better than our farm dog, Beanpot. She had large spots that looked just like pinto beans dropped into our white cooking pot! Her name was perfectly logical to my five-year old mind. It just made sense.

As an early childhood teacher, I loved introducing children to animals and other critters. But it is quite a responsibility and it is not for the faint-hearted.  If you would like to learn more about safety precautions and selecting appropriate pets for child care, check out our information on eXtension.org. But safety considerations aside, the opportunity for children to develop “critter social-skills,” is worth the effort.  Remember the two “B’s” – “Be close” and “Be clear” with children. When introducing children to animals, stay nearby and set clear boundaries and give instructions. You might say . . .“The puppy likes to be held like this.” “Stroke her back gently—this way.” How do you think this tiny puppy feels when she is squeezed too hard?

Learning to care for animals helps children learn more about caring for themselves and others. We all grow, we eat, we sleep, and we need each other to get through life. With guidance, many children can develop a surprisingly extensive understanding of what animals and other critters need to thrive in our natural world. I’ve known some five-year olds with an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs. Personally, I think rabbits and butterflies are much more exciting. They are real. You can see them grow and develop. You can touch them and look at them for hours. What fun!

What animals and critters have you introduced to your early childhood program? How have you helped children discover the “wild-side” of nature?

Lesia Oesterreich

Lesia Oesterreich has served in almost every position imaginable in her 35 years of working in the field of early childhood education. Although she never quite made it as a successful bus driver, she has worked as a teacher's assistant, a cook, a teacher, an assistant director, and as a center director. An enthusiastic teacher, she taught in both community colleges and in university settings and has served as the early childhood website editor for National Network for Child Care and the Children, Youth, Families and Education and Research Network (CYFERnet). Her favorite (and current) role has been to serve as a Families Extension Specialist and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Iowa State University. Lesia has written numerous early childhood articles and publications is the author of the Heartland Family Child Care Handbook.

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  1. My 5th grader is sooooo excited for school to start because the 5th grade classroom has RATS. and SHE can’t wait. I think it’s great to be able to share the uncommon pet with kids and show them that the word PET is really about how you treat all animals. (and yes we’ve had spiders & mice as pets in our classroom too).

  2. Hi Lori!

    My son has had several rats as pets! While they are not my preference (I am much more of a dog lover), they were recommended by our local pet store owner over a hamster or a guinea pig. I love that your child’s teacher is willing to add pets to the classroom as part of educating and nurturing the whole child – not just pencil and paper academics. 🙂

    We have a retirement village near where I live that follows a philosophy called Eden Alternative. The mission is to improve the well-being of elders and those who care for them by transforming the communities and the vision is to eliminate loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. When I visit this retirement community, it feels very much like the philosophy Jim Greenman shares with us in Caring Spaces, Learning Places (http://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/whatallchildrenneed/whatallchildrenneed.html). Pets and the benefits they bring to people are a big part of the Eden Alternative philosophy and I can see where this relates not only to senior citizens, but to all ages!