With pets as play partners, kids may get more physical activity, have lower anxiety and more.
- Parker Barry
My nephew Oliver has pet loving parents, so animals have always been a big part of their family. From a young age, Ollie learned how to properly play with his pets and read their signals (scratch or bark = too rough!) As he has grown he has taken on the responsibility of feeding and walking their two dogs. Their cat, Kuni, also joins them for walks on their Hawaii hilltop. His mom, Jennifer, says that growing up in a household with pets has provided Oliver with strong social-emotional skills like empathy, care and mindfulness.
Kids who grow up with pets experience endless benefits ranging from lower blood pressure and fewer allergies to increased physical activity. Along with physiological perks, kids experience less anxiety and depression, improved learning outcomes and social-emotional effects. In a recent review of 22 studies, pet relationships were shown to reduce loneliness and increase self-esteem. Kids also engage in more social play, with greater social competence and larger social networks.
There is growing evidence that children with special needs, particularly those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), can find a calm, friendly animal to be a compelling focal object. A skilled therapist can use animal interactions as a bridge to human social interaction, which can be challenging for children with ASD. Kids who experience anxiety, depression or histories of abuse can find a small furry animal, such as a guinea pig, comforting to touch and hold. Increasingly, schools, libraries and other settings use trained pet therapy animals to help motivate, calm, de-escalate and teach social-emotional learning (SEL).
Oliver used to get mad that Macky would sleep with me at night and not him,” says his mom, Jennifer. “I told him that he does sleep with him, but that once he is off dreaming Macky would come and sleep with me. Oliver did not believe me until I provided him with evidence.” Photo by Jennifer Veltri Kirsch
Pet relationships can help kids build trusting relationships
Some 75 percent of U.S. households have at least one domestic animal, and pets are seen in school settings, neighbors’ homes and other environments. Kids identify their pets as members of their family as well as loyal friends who provide acceptance, emotional comfort and companionship. Dr. Gail Melson, professor emerita at Purdue University, asked a group of 5-year-old pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid or when they had a secret to share. More than 40 percent spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets. Kids know their pet pals don’t literally understand, but they feel understood. These relationships can help build trusting relationships with peers and family members.
Kids identify their pets as members of their family as well as loyal friends who provide acceptance, emotional comfort and companionship.
As young children see that their pets are there for them, they begin to learn how to care for their pets in return. To start with, they learn the basic responsibilities of pet ownership by being helpers. Parents can offer age-appropriate prompts to add a scoop of food, refill water, change puppy bedding, etc. Kids will always need supervision for their safety and the pet’s (to a kid, 10 shakes of fish food are better than one, but that can be most dangerous for the fish. Apologies to my cousin Joel for that time I overfed Freckles).
Kids can learn to read their pets’ signals and needs that may differ from their own, likely contributing to perspective-taking and empathy development (Daly & Morton, 2006). They can also practice turn taking and sharing through play scenarios. These are all great trial runs for sibling and peer interactions. Moreover, “Pets provide a good opportunity for children to practice nurturing, a building block for empathy,” says Dr. Melson. “Nurturance provides an important lesson in caregiving, especially for boys who might otherwise consider it to be ‘girl stuff.’” Because pets are dependent on human care for survival, play scenarios tend to focus on nurturing, just as frequently as playing fetch.
Kids’ social play with animals can be compared to human play patterns
Once safety needs are satisfied, children’s interactions with pets are generally more child-directed with little adult intervention. Kids construct and structure play routines with their pets, since most, with the exception of dogs, can’t fully participate. More than other species, dogs have co-evolved in human environments and can thus interpret human signals and offer them in return, for example, rolling over to get a belly rub. With other animals, children will generally play as a parent might scaffold an infant — petting a gerbil, pausing to observe his response, and saying “You like that, huh? Yes? OK, here’s another pet,” providing both sides of the conversation.
Very young children may use their pets as props in make-believe play (having a tea party with kitty or putting it in the baby carriage). The cat will only briefly allow this, but parental supervision is needed so that the animal doesn’t get too stressed out or injured from enthusiastic dress-up activities or tail pulling. Although they seem to anthropomorphize their stuffed animals or toys, children consider live animals to be like people and treat them as such. In fact, children’s social play with animals can be directly compared to play patterns between children and adults.
Types of social play between younger children and their pets:
- Play with objects: playing catch or fetch with a ball or dangling a string for a kitten.
- Animal conversation: kids greet, command and verbally confide in their pets, sometimes offering both sides of the dialogue.
- Animal embodiment: pretending to be the pet and playing as if the child is a member of that animal’s species.
- Animal pretend play: several kids pretend to be animals when none are present.
Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology.