Parenting Future Fanimals

By Heather Rubright

Being a Fanimal with young kids brings the added responsibility and desire to instill into these developing children a sense of love, appreciation, and respect for animals. Before my kids were even born, I picked three things that were important to me that I wanted to communicate the significance of during our time together. I picked Dream Big, Be Yourself, and Love Nature. I made pictures with these phrases on them for the kids to see everyday, and they are still hanging in their rooms, although the backgrounds have changed over the years. For me, Love Nature encompasses a wide range of topics, including doing our part to protect the environment, learning about and appreciating the beauty of the natural world around us, and understanding how we can have a symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem we live in. This includes all living plants and animals, from trees and flowers, to insects, worms, sharks, tigers, and everything in between. The ways in which I expose them to these things varies, but at least one thing remains the same. I consciously strive to inspire them by conveying my personal interest, excitement, and love for animals and nature.   

One of the ways I create a sense of interest in animals is by spending as much time outside as possible. It has long been recognized that being in nature has a positive effect on human health and happiness. Over 20 years ago, American biologist E. O. Wilson noted that humans are hardwired to connect with the natural world. Those sentiments can be taken even further. The mere act of being present in nature creates a sense of wonder and awe for what is there. It helps us all to remember that we are part of a bigger picture. Walks on trails, camping, and hiking are all activities that provide immeasurable learning experiences, even when we are being too loud to see any animals. It also gives me an opportunity to start a dialogue about taking care of the environment so that animals can not only survive, but also thrive. Additionally, there are countless ways to teach about animal habitats during these adventures, while also having the opportunity to observe some of them in person. 

Another activity that we do, that I think builds a sense of wonder for discovery for animals and the environment, is gardening. There are countless reasons why gardening is beneficial for children, not the least of which is providing an outdoor classroom where they can learn about nature, plants, and animals. For example, we learn about the important role of bees and worms for a garden, we talk about what rabbits like to eat, how ladybugs are just as good, if not better than, pesticides, and we discuss the natural circle of life. These are lessons that will hopefully stick with them that they can carry into adulthood, and maybe even pass on to their own children. 

By utilizing some of the many wonderful resources available to us from like-minded organizations, we’ve been able to incorporate learning about animals in a variety of interesting ways. Visiting the local natural history museum has always been a fun and interactive way for us to expand our knowledge of animals and their natural habitats. Also, during these current times in which we need to stay at home, we have been enjoying animal-inspired crafts, watching live video cams from zoos across the country, and listening to books about animals on Scholastic’s website. Following these, I will sometimes encourage and assist with a little bit of age-appropriate research, reading, or writing on the animals we are most interested in learning more about. We also have a bimonthly magazine subscription to National Geographic Little Kids, which is a great way to engage curious minds about different kinds of animals. The excitement of receiving your own mail is always a wonderful way to initiate interest. For older kids, Creature Feature News, is an entertaining weekly news bulletin about animals in the news. 

It seems that children have almost an innate fascination and curiosity about animals. In fact, research supports this. “Children recognize the intrinsic value of animals not because of what animals do for us, what we can take from them, or how they help us, but simply because they are living creatures”. This allows for fairly effortless engagement and learning to take place, but one topic that can be challenging to expose kids to involves animal ethics. Kathy and Nick Coughlin, along with illustrator Ruby Roth, have created a box set of cards called We’re All Animals. These cards feature stories, discussion questions, and challenges that “help kids think critically about how they can help make the world a better place for everyone”. For a few nights, in place of bedtime stories, I read these cards to my kids and we talked about each of them. I was pleasantly surprised when they would ask for more and more to be read. After we finished all the cards, we put them away and my daughter continues to take them out and read the stories. It made talking about difficult subjects much easier and allowed them to consider certain issues that we may not have previously encountered firsthand. 

Lastly, although we do not have pets at this time, research has shown there are developmental benefits for children who have companion animals at home. Results of some studies are mixed and more longitudinal information is needed, but overall children that live with a pet appear to have increased self-esteem, cognitive development, and social skills. This is obviously a two-way street. Animals in shelters are in dire need of a family in which people love and care for them in return. This may be enough motivation for families without pets, ours included, to consider adoption in the near future. 

Janice Bullock noted that one of the values of nature education for children is that “experiences with nature can help children to develop a respect for living things. Children who come to appreciate living things and understand the importance of the relationships among them will be less likely to hurt or destroy them.” This seems like common sense, but the world continues to change and evolve, and animals continue to become endangered or extinct. We must remember that the future lies within the hands of our children. Exposure to animals and nature is not only beneficial for children, but also vital for the continued welfare of all living creatures. 

Sources: Capital Gardens, Day Care and Early Education, International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Mindful