Letter from CAIRC
July 2002 Vol.6 No.2

CAIRC hosts symposium: The Significant Relation between Pets and Children
~Influences of Animals and Nature on Child Development~
About 230 educators, researchers, veterinarians, students and others attend symposium

Professor Gail F. Melson and other specialists on relationships between children, animals and nature are invited to panel discussion

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has made what it calls “education of the spirit”, an important part of the educational reforms it plans to carry out this year. This is clearly an important theme for reform when one considers the effects of the rapid advance of urbanization and computerization in our society. One noted approach to education that is consistent with this theme includes placing children in a natural setting where they can experience the emotional release that promotes emotional and spiritual development. Interacting with pets is one way of creating such experiences. Extensive investigation has confirmed the beneficial effects that pets have on children, including scholarly research findings, and many families are raising pets as a means of cultivating sensitivity among their children.

The activities of the Companion Animal Information and Research Center (CAIRC) are aimed at promoting coexistence between humans and companion animals. To that end, CAIRC hosted the symposium on the crucial relationship between children and animals. Researchers, veterinary specialists and students were among the roughly 230 participants who gathered at the TEPIA Hall venue in Tokyo’s Minato ward, and the event included a panel discussion that featured an active exchange of views.

Keynote address delivered by Professor Gail F. Melson, World-renowned researcher on the relationship between children and pets

The symposium began at 1:00 p.m. on June 8 with the keynote address “Animals in the Lives of Children,” which Professor Melson delivered following opening remarks by CAIRC Chairman Yoichi Shoda. In addition to being a noted researcher in the field of child developmental psychology, Professor Melson has conducted extensive research on the relationship between children and animals. She presented her research report “Pets as a sources of support for mothers, fathers, and young children” at the IAHAIO 8th International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions in 1998. And her recent book “Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children” (2001) has received high praise for its presentation of the ways in which interaction with animals influences children’s growth and development.

Keynote address: Animals in the Lives of Children
~Providing emotional release and nurturing empathy, relationships with pets have a good influence on emotional development~
By Dr. Gail F. Melson
(Researcher and professor at Department of Child Development & Family Studies at Purdue University, USA)

Pets play a crucial role in child emotional development, particularly amid the current trend toward the nuclear family and families with fewer children

Statistics indicate that pet ownership among families with children is particularly common in the United States, where 70% to 75% of children grow up with pets. And as the current trend toward the nuclear family and families with fewer children intensifies, children are spending more and more time with companion animals. Zoos, aquariums and natural parks are especially popular, and there are more opportunities to visit such facilities that provide opportunities for contact with animals than there are opportunities to go to professional sporting events. Classroom pets are common, and animals are frequent themes of the dreams of children under 8 years old.

Research has confirmed in recent years that animals play a significant role in children’s lives. Through nurturing pets and investing emotionally in them, children learn to care for and look after others. Pets also provide an opportunity to learn from experiences with death and loss, and they provide emotional and social support during times of stress.

Learning emotional regulation and empathy through playing with pets

First of all, let’s take a look at the attachment to pets. There is data to indicate that ordinarily the amount of time a child spends with human family members goes down as the child grows while time spent with pets, on the other hand, increases. It can also be said that the more time that is spent with a pet, the deeper the attachment to that pet becomes. Children learn a great deal from “rough and tumble” play with pets. They acquire emotional regulation through free expression within safe limits — discovering, for instance, how much force can be used without causing pain to others. Also, interaction with pets does not place the kinds of expectations and task demands on children that interaction with adults does. Children are therefore able to relax with pets because they aren’t required to accomplish tasks.

Thus, we know that children are able to lavish unequivocal affection on their pets. According to interviews with children, a great many children like their pets as much as a good friend or even more than a good friend. My own research show that there is no difference between boys and girls in levels of affection felt toward pets, and that there are few variations corresponding to different species. Levels of affection tend to be higher in households in which the mother is employed full-time, and when no younger siblings are available. The results also indicated that children who express strong affection toward pets tend to have a strong ability to empathize with others, as well as an elevated sense of self-competence.

It was also found that children make no gender distinctions in caring for pets. In boys, the desire to care for younger siblings fades away at about age 5. Both boys and girls, however, appear to continue to maintain a keen interest in taking care of pets. Since boys generally have fewer opportunities to learn how to care for others, caring for a pet can be an important means of compensating for that lack of experience.

Pets are “good friends,” always available and non-judgmental

Next, I’d like to address the issue of animals and children’s stress. When people feel stress, their sense of isolation can be reduced when others are nearby. This is because stress can be relieved through the emotional ease and sense of reassurance of being a loved, valued member of a group. Another study touches on this role, as well as other aspects of pets’ presence. It confirms that Pets are regarded as “good friends” who are always available and never judgmental. They do not require high levels of verbal or social interaction or reciprocation for the support they provide. In addition, pets make children feel valued and competent.

Positive outcome depends on adults’ reactions

One point we need to consider is the fact that although animals can enrich on children’s development, animals do not inevitably do so. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to ensure that children learn from their interaction with animals through teaching by example. While the cost of raising a pet, the housing situation, allergies and other factors may preclude keeping animals in the home, opportunities to nurture pets can be created through visits to facilities such as parks and zoos. And opportunities for children to care for other living things are not limited to interaction with animals. By having children help with gardening, for instance, they can experience tending plants. In order to ensure that the child takes responsibility for raising a pet, the child must be made to thoroughly understand that he or she will be expected to look after the animal for its entire life. It is therefore important to avoid buying pets on impulse, or giving animals to them as birthday presents. Of course, it is also essential that a pet be thoroughly trained, and parents and teachers must take the ultimate responsibility for the raising of the animals.

Specialists give presentations on various subjects related to children and animals
~Symposium Chairman Mitsuaki Ohta, a professor at Azabu University, as well as three other panelists, present views~

Adults should understand the presence pets have in children’s lives
By Misako Namiki, Chiba Zoological Park Society and Part-time Lecturer at Ferris University

The ways in which we acquire new knowledge are changing. Our understanding of what it means to learn something has come to be much more experiential. Much of what we know comes from the learning experiences in our daily life, and the presence of animals in the household is therefore a source of a wide range of learning experiences. In this context it is crucial for parents to understand the presence animals have in the lives of children, as well as what kind of relationship children have toward animals, since this can be an indicator of the child’s emotional state.

A child can learn a great deal in caring for animals simply by discovering from observation what pleases the animal. By getting to know another, the child can experience affection, and through experiencing affection, develop a desire to learn more about the animal. In this process lie the seeds of a scientific awareness, so it becomes very important for adults near children who are interacting with animals in this way to demonstrate to the child that it is highly valued.

All of this brings us to the question of what children’s emotional development is. We adults tend to place a lot of weight on our own idealized goals when we educate our children, and this is thought to lead to forcing children in certain directions or to coloring their education with our own desires. By thinking critically about our attitudes toward animals and nature, we are able to plant the seeds of future development within children. That directly impacts their emotional development, and will be essential to creating a new relationship between humans and nature in the future.

Optimizing the learning experience is crucial to promoting emotional development through experiencing nature
By Mitsuhisa Hioki, Curriculum Senior Specialist, Curriculum Research and Development Center, National Institute for Education Policy Research / School-Subject Investigation Officer, Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports,Science and Technology

Legislation was recently passed for the introduction of experiential education in schools. In addition to the introduction of the two-day weekend, educational methods incorporating nature-based experience represent an adaptation to the elevated educational needs of the 21st century. As an educator whose work is leading nature-based experiential education activities, I would like to introduce what I believe to be several crucial points.

The first is the importance of enthusiastically optimizing the learning experience. By relating the experience to past encounters, and thus rendering it meaningful, educational value can be maximized. The world of the unconscious has a major influence on the decision making process, and actualizing experiences that are closed up in the subconscious thus gives rise to learning.

The second point I would like to make is the importance of keeping the goals and aims of the activity in mind. It is crucial to give thought to the nature of the learning one wants to bring about in the child. The lessons learned from the same type of experience can differ depending on the aims of the experience and the ordering of activities.

My third point is to call attention to the vector by which we are moving toward the future. The present exists between the past and the future, and we need to be aware of this. Finally, it is crucial to expand our perceptions of things. The perceptions we have of animals are different from the experience of a direct encounter with them. There is something to learn from becoming aware of this gap in perceptions. By raising plants and animals, we learn a wide range of lessons such as empathy through long-term relationships with other living things, and we acquire an awareness of the characteristic differences between them and ourselves.

Adults should recognize the motivations children have for raising pets, and the importance of empathy for animals in child emotional development
By Yoichi Shoda, CAIRC Chairman and Professor Emeritus of the University of Tokyo

The motivations people have for raising pets are an important point to consider when reflecting on animal welfare and child emotional development. In researching the ways in which Americans view animals, S.Kellert identified 12 categories of attitudes toward animals. Among the 12 types of attitudes, those represented by negative images such as “unclean” or “frightening” do not give rise to motivation to raise pets. By the same token, a complete lack of interest in animals doesn’t translate into a desire to keep pets either.

But there are attitudes that do give rise to a desire to keep pets. Curiosity about an animal, for instance, is a scientific attitude that leads to a motivation to keep pets such as insects. The need to eat has also been a motivation to raise animals for food.

A scientific motivation for keeping an animal does not preclude the possibility that one can feel affection for it, and even consider it as a family member. Although it is not the kind of thing that can be easily categorized, it is crucial in considering children’s emotional development to regard a pet as a companion animal, that is, to interact with the animal as a member of the family.

I think that as a child learns from interaction with a pet, it is necessary for an adult to observe the interaction and thereby determine accurately what the child’s motivation for raising the pet is. This makes it possible to raise the pet responsibly.

Progress in the scientific study of human-animal relationships and the urgent need for more in-depth research
By Mitsuaki Ohta, Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Azabu University

At the IAHAIO 9th International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions held in Rio de Janeiro last September, a contest was held in which attendees selected the best of about 20 poster presentations that were on exhibit. The research presentation of a female researcher from Austria received the highest evaluation.

The presentation was based on the results of a comparative study of the behavior of a class of 24 six-year-old children when with pets and in the absence of their pets. The results indicated that when a disruption occurred in the classroom, contact with dogs enabled the class to calm down more readily, thus preventing the disruption from getting out of control. Elevated levels of autonomous decision making ability and concentration were also noted.

A number of reports like this one is emerging, based on a scientific approach to the relationships between children and animals. But much progress has yet to be made. Approximately 100 years pass from a person’s birth to death, so education cannot be looked at as something with immediate results. This makes it necessary to firmly establish the frame of reference for any research project, and I sincerely hope that this symposium will provide an opportunity to further this objective.

We need to promote interaction with nature and animals in the home and in schools for the sake of our children’s future and that of nature and animals

A Q-and-A session was held after the panelists gave their presentations, during which the following question was aired: “In our life science class for first and second graders we conduct activities that include interaction with dogs. When asked to draw pictures of the dogs, the first graders tend to draw the dog alone with no context. Since the level of understanding is so different, do you think we should be separating the first graders from the second graders?”

Dr. Namiki had the following advice: “There are differences in individual comprehension among the first graders, and while there may be a question as to whether they are accustomed to expressing themselves, the important thing is whether a given child is able to communicate what he or she wants to express using a given method.”

And according to Professor Melson, “It’s said that it’s more educationally effective to teach a range of ages at once. The older children can teach the younger children because they are capable of becoming teachers with whom the younger children feel a sense of affinity. But in order for this to take place, an excellent teacher able to understand the process is required.”

Dr. Hioki added: “Having children draw pictures before encountering animals can heighten their sense of anticipation, and having them draw pictures again afterward enables children to learn what they did not know before the encounter. It’s not a matter of first graders being able to accomplish less. I think the best thing is for the teacher to approach the situation flexibly.”

In his interview with CAIRC, Dr. Hioki said that “In Animal-Assisted Education, it is essential for veterinarians and teachers to reach a consensus. Teachers and veterinarians need to communicate with each other in order to determine the best ways to enhance the process of discovery and thereby optimize the educational value of the experience.”

A kindergartner sees a rabbit and stops crying — contact with animals has a big effect on children

Looking back on the symposium, Professor Ohta noted that “these lectures have provided us with an indication of issues to be faced in the future. I believe we have to focus on several topics that require further research. It is my hope that the relationship between children and animals will be addressed by research projects conducted not only on a personal level, but on the level of nation and government.”

According to Shigemi Kanno, principal of Ayame-dai Kindergarten in Chiba prefecture, “I believe the healing effect of animals on children is very real indeed. We’ve had children who were crying due to stress from entering a new environment in kindergarten and stop crying after seeing a pet rabbit.

I live next door to the kindergarten, and keep a pet dog. Children at our kindergarten all love animals, but among them only about one household in ten is home to a pet. For many of these children, our kindergarten provides the only opportunity for contact with animals, so we want to provide as many such opportunities as possible. Until recently, we were unaware of the visiting animal program to educational facilities, but once we know there is no danger involved, we want to introduce these activities one day.”

As the natural environment rapidly disappears from our cities, so do opportunities for children to have contact with animals. Research into the relationship between children and pets is significant to the future of our children and of animals and nature as well. This is an urgent issue, and CAIRC intend to promote this theme from now on.

*The symposium was held with the sponsorship of the Japan Veterinary Medical Association, the Japan Small Animal Veterinary Association and the Society for the Study of Human Animal Relations. Cooperation was also provided by the Animal and Human Bonds, School of Veterinary Medicine, Azabu University as well as the Japanese Veterinary Council for School-owned Animals.