25th September 2018
Mark Pearson on children and their natural empathy for animals.
As adults we cannot fail to observe a child’s innocent delight in interactions with animals. On a more prosaic note, science tells us that a child’s amygdala, the most ancient part of the human brain, is hardwired to respond to other animals. When measuring brain activity, scientists found that neurons in the amygdala became extremely active when the subject was shown pictures of animals. The right hemisphere of the amygdala is the storage space where young brains respond to emotional stimuli, creating categories of animals such as prey, play or predator.
E.O. Wilson, a biologist, coined the term “biophilia” to describe the biologically determined affinity of humans with the natural world, including the inherent empathy humans have for other living beings. It explains the emotional desire to protect creatures that are small and vulnerable.
Very young children are drawn to animals, especially baby animals. Babies are more likely to smile at, talk to and touch live animals rather than mechanical animal toys. Studies of the dreams of pre-school children reveal that as many as 90% of their dreams are about animals. There is also considerable evidence that children derive emotional sustenance from their companion animals, often talking to their pets when lonely, afraid or sad.
Early childhood educators have recognised that children thrive when they spend time in natural settings that include opportunities for interactions with animals. . Unlike adults who have been socialised into a transnational view of animals; what they can provide in the way of food, clothing or entertainment, children recognise the intrinsic value of animals; that simply because they are living creatures, they are important. Children innately understand that they are part of and not separate to, nature.
As social media videos show, children have the openness and capacity to bond with any kind of animal. A chance encounter with an orphaned magpie can trigger a lifelong passion for native birds. When children are introduced to wild animals, a whole new world opens before them. Even endemic wild creatures such as ducks, possums and lizards can absorb a child’s full attention
The fictional wall that human society has built to delineate between human and animal is invisible to children. Children are curious to know about all the different ways of being an animal. As any story teller knows, a child is endlessly fascinated about animals live. They love to hear the sounds animal make, the homes they build, what and how they eat. Children are amazed by the ability of animals to fly, swim through the water and climb high in the trees, or seem to disappear through camouflage.
Introducing children to the natural environment and wild animals can help children develop empathy for animals. Research also reveals that when children are encouraged to care for companion animals, they tend to be more sensitive and caring toward other people as well. A growing body of evidence shows that children who are supported in their care for animals tend to generalise that love to other living things. Developing caring relationships with animal can lead to deeper feelings of empathy in young children, more positive peer relationships, and social-emotional development.
As children have experiences with animals, they learn about differences and similarities, needs (such as for food, shelter, water and space), and compassion and empathy can grow and deepen.
Conversely, if children are not exposed to the natural world in a positive way, their developing amygdala may only learn the fear response to animals and the natural world. Their innate sense of connection to nature can be overridden by adult role modelling. At worst, children may develop biophobia, an aversion to nature. Children may learn to become fearful of insects and animals not found in highly urbanised environments. These children are at risk of growing up to undervalue the environment and to have little regard for animals as sentient beings.