The important role of animals in child development

Teaching children about animal welfare from a young age is crucial in shaping a better world for animals, and those working in the field of psychology and animal protection want us all to be aware of the important role of animals in child development.

We take a closer look at the topic with Professor Vicki Hutton and World Animal Protection Australia’s Suzanne Milthorpe. Both experts share their advice for parents on ways to educate children from a young age about animals.

Two kids participate in mini zoo keeper for the day for zoo school holiday programs

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

Recent studies highlight the significant role of animals in child development, particularly with social and emotional growth.

But experts say that the relationship between children and animals also helps instill essential life values.

And, raising children to be compassionate and respectful towards animals is a crucial aspect of nurturing responsible, empathetic individuals.

Suzanne Milthorpe, Head of Campaigns at World Animal Protection Australia, says teaching kindness early is an important took to create generational change in society’s approach to animal welfare.

“Teaching children about animal protection and welfare early on has the potential to create a lasting impact on how we view and approach animal welfare as a society.

“By instilling kindness and empathy towards animals at a young age, we can shape a future where animals are treated with the respect and compassion they deserve.

An example Suzanne uses is the millions of farmed and wild animals that are being used in industries such as intensive farming.

“Educating children about their welfare is critical in working towards a better world for them,” she says.

“It encourages children to be informed about their choices, and how these choices can impact animals and our environment.

“This means that young people today have the power to begin a journey of change that can eventually improve the lives of million animals,” she adds. “Leading to a more compassionate and sustainable world.”

Suzanne Milthorpe from World Animal Protection for the role of animals in child development
Suzanne Milthorpe from World Animal Protection says teaching kids about animals from a young age will help shape future generations (image: WAPA)

Milthorpe says there’s simple actions families can do to promote and encourage children to make animal-friendly choices.

Including making wildlife-friendly choices while travelling and shopping. Or learning about the challenges animals face by engaging in local wildlife protection initiatives.

These activities, Milthorpe adds, are vital in forming a child’s understanding of, and empathy for, animals.

“We see the younger generation as the driving force behind a more compassionate and responsible world.

“They’re not just the future; they’re the present, making a real difference today through awareness, and ethical consumer and lifestyle choices.

“We hope to continue to support and work alongside young change-makers, because together, we’re creating a future where animals are treated with the kindness and respect they deserve.”

Girl with wallabies at Featherdale for best animal activities for kids and featherdale Wildlife Park is teaching children about animals by offering young zookeeper for the day programs during school holidays
Some zoos and wildlife parks offer programs that focus on teaching children about animals; like the young zookeeper programs offered at Featherdale Wildlife Park (image: Caroline Zambrano)

And while the ‘attachment theory’ is predominantly spoken of in regard to the child and mother bond, there’s been several psychological theories over the decades that consistently recognised the role of animals in a child’s formative years.

Hutton says that attachment to an animal can play a critical role in a child’s psychosocial stages of development. And theories by historical psychological figures Erik Erikson and John Bowlby demonstrate this.

“For example, within the context of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, attachment to an animal can contribute to areas such as purpose (ages three to five) and competency (ages five to 13).

“Looking at it in terms of Bowlby’s attachment theory, animals can provide children with unconditional love as well as a safe haven during times of stress or the unknown.

“The child can venture out into the world, knowing that their animal will always provide an anchor, or safe haven, when they return.”

While the ‘attachment theory’ traditionally began with the mother and child bond, Hutton says it’s also been used psychologically in the human-animal relationship, including with children.

“Robert Weiss built on attachment theory when identifying six psychosocial needs,” says Vicki.

“Weiss listed attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, reliable alliance and guidance in stressful situations.

“All of which can occur when a child is attached to an animal.”

Professor Vicki Hutton talks to Animal Friendly Life about the importance of teaching children about animals young
Professor Vicki Hutton (image supplied)

Because children model their behaviour off adults, there are important considerations for families thinking about introducing an animal into their home.

“Children will learn from the way adults treat animals,” says Hutton.

“So, it is very important not to take on an animal if he or she is going to be emotionally or physically neglected or abandoned.

“That does not teach children responsibility and can have long term consequences for the animal and the child’s perceptions of the role of animals.”

“Animals are not commodities to be used for company or entertainment then put away until needed again.

“Cute puppies and kittens grow into unique individuals who deserve to have their needs met for the next 10, 15 or 20+ years.”

Hutton explains how behavioural issues such as separation anxiety, barking and anxiety-related aggression can all result in animals being relinquished when they grow out of the cute phase and assert their basic needs.

Young girl holds pet rabbit for World Animal Protection tells Animal Friendly Life about responsible pet ownership and teaching children about animals
Vicki stresses the importance of the whole family being ready before introducing a pet (image: Canva)

Children’s books and television programs about animals can be more than just entertainment; they can be educational.

And while we don’t often think of documentaries as children’s viewing, they can, in fact, be incredibly impactful when it comes to issues about animals, nature, or the environment.

These programs, depicting animals with emotions and personalities, help children relate to them on a deeper level.

Tip: Always choose media that portrays animals in a respectful and empathetic light, reinforcing the values you want to instill in children.

Suzanne says encouraging children to watch documentaries, or read a book about animals, is a great way to develop their understanding of different animal species’.

“These stories, which depict animals with emotions and personalities, help children relate to them on a deeper level,” explains Suzanne.

“Choosing media that portrays animals in a respectful and empathetic light can subtly reinforce the values of animal kindness.”

And, to actively engage children in animal welfare, World Animal Protection Australia provides educational resources and activities. Milthorpe highlights the availability of free activity books that teach children about animals in a fun and interactive manner, as well as volunteering opportunities for young people to get involved in campaigns, fundraising, and community events.

Top ten animal documentaries:

  • African Cats: Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this Disneynature documentary follows the lives of a lion family and a cheetah family, offering an engaging narrative about their survival and interactions.
  • Big Cat Diary: A BBC series focusing on lion, cheetah, and leopard families in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. The series provides an in-depth look at the lives of these majestic creatures.
  • Life in the Undergrowth: A documentary dedicated to the lives of insects, showcasing their fascinating world in great detail. A great choice for bug-loving kids!
  • Life of Birds: Narrated by David Attenborough, this series explores the diverse world of birds, their behaviours, and habitats.
  • Chimpanzee: A Disney nature documentary that follows the story of a young chimpanzee named Oscar and his survival in the Ugandan forest.
  • Arctic Tale: This documentary narrates the lives of a polar bear and a walrus cub in the Arctic, highlighting the impacts of climate change on their environment.
  • March of the Penguins: An iconic documentary that showcases the journey of emperor penguins in Antarctica, focusing on their mating rituals and survival challenges.
    One of the best animal documentaries for children is March of the Penguin
  • Jane: This documentary features never-before-seen footage of Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking fieldwork with chimpanzees in the 1960s. Suited to older children, they can be inspired by Goodall’s pioneering advocacy work.
  • Our Planet: A docuseries that showcases Earth’s natural beauty and the diverse species that inhabit different ecosystems.
  • Secrets of the Whales: Produced by James Cameron, this series explores the culture and social structures of various whale species.

Top ten animal books:

  • Australian Backyard birds: Author and illustrator Myke Mollard’s engaging book for children. This captivating book is full of beautiful bird drawings and information. Read our article on Australian Backyard Birds here.
    Australian Backyard Birds front cover by Myke Mollard
  • An Anthology of Intriguing Animals: This book features detailed drawings and information in an engaging way for primary school-aged children. It covers a wide array of animals, from giant whales to tiny spiders.
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ugly Animals: Images and information on the less traditional ‘cute’ animals.
  • Atlas of Animal Adventures: This book combines drawings, maps, and information about animals across different continents. It focuses on migration and behaviour, offering heaps of facts and insights.
  • Weird Wild Amazing: Covers a range of bizarre, and sometimes gross, animal facts.
  • Hidden Planet: Suitable for older kids, it showcases animals with stunning artwork and personal insights from the author.
  • Wildlives: Shares the amazing stories of 50 extraordinary animals that made history.
  • A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals: This book focuses on educating kids about endangered species.