These alternatives can help kids receive the benefits of pets when they can't have one at home.
- Parker Barry
If your circumstances don’t allow for a “forever” family pet, your kids can still experience connections with animals that produce beneficial effects.
- Digital pets. Virtual or robotic pets require regular attention (feeding, petting, playing) for survival. Although they know digi-pets aren’t living things, kids still attribute feelings and thoughts to them. Research shows that the lines are increasingly blurring between how kids relate to virtual vs. real animals.
- Fostering. Temporarily caring for an animal gives kids an opportunity to experience the responsibilities of pet ownership. Contact your local animal shelter or rescue group (sometimes located at pet shops). Kids may also play a rotating role in caring for a classroom pet. Kids can symbolically adopt animals at many animal sanctuaries, as well.
- Volunteering. Supporting elderly, busy or vacationing neighbors by feeding their pets or walking a dog can really help. It’s something you and your kid can do together and provides many teachable moments. It also give kids a sense of what it might be like to care for a pet on a daily basis. Depending on the child’s age and abilities, there may be other settings (like those below) that allow for light volunteering.
- Visiting. Seeing environments where animals are being cared for allows your child to learn about nurturing, as well as human-animal relationships. Parents can encourage gentle touch as well as awareness of body language and nonverbal communication for relatedness, respect and safety.
Here are a few places to visit and care for animals (both domestic and wild):
- Cat cafes. Established in Taiwan and popularized in Japan where most apartments don’t allow cats, cat cafes have popped up around the world with locations in most major U.S. cities.
- Dog parks. Whether at a dog run or just spotting Spot out and about, it’s important to ask the dog’s owner if it’s OK to pet their pup. Kids also need to be taught how to do it gently and carefully. Also, if the leash has a yellow ribbon, don’t approach — that dog needs space because he’s sick, scared or aggressive.
- Shelters. Kids can visit an animal shelter to donate old blankets, toys or treats, and say hello to the dogs and cats, but it might be tough telling the kids, “We’re just visiting, not bringing one home.’”
- Petting zoos. Children can care for animals at fairs, farms and zoos by brushing and feeding them.
- Animal sanctuaries. Sanctuaries, including some zoos and aquariums, are committed to providing safe and healthy refuge for abused, injured or abandoned wildlife in environments specifically designed for the unique animals they support. Many centers provide educational programs and camps where kids can learn about animal welfare.
Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology.
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