Animal therapy: Down on the school farm

Written by: Jon Gray | Published:
Outdoors education: Animals housed on the grounds of York House School range from goats and donkeys to pigs and sheep (images supplied)

From lambs to donkeys to pigs, the animals at York House School are helping pupils to adopt and model positive behaviour. Head Jon Gray explains why all schools should consider ‘animal therapy’

Many schools today are recognising the important role that on-site animals can play in boosting and modelling positive behaviour. Animals can also be hugely beneficial in encouraging the development of empathy and tolerance in children, steering them away from an egocentric perspective.

There is a great poster that says: “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” Our domestic animals and pets look to us to be the very best version of ourselves, and they love us for that. When the animal makes that expectation clear and gives affection and positivity in response, it helps to shape the child into that positive and mature image of who they might be.

For those rising numbers of children suffering with anxiety or depression, animals can sometimes be the best medicine. Many find that as soon as an animal meets a child’s gaze, there is a sense of warmth, calmness and a lack of direct challenge.

The incessant noise of modern childhood sees pupils welcome the calm of a paddock or a field to shelter, where needs are relatively few, and the passage of time is measured in days and seasons rather than the number of “likes”. Almost anything that helps the modern child to slow down a little, relax and reflect, is beneficial.

Most children see nurture as something they both need and hope to receive. When they care for animals, it gives them an opportunity to become the provider or “the parent” of nurture, which helps them to understand these kinds of transactional relationships all the better. It gives children a sense of purpose alongside the proven physical calming effect that contact with a suitable pet or other animal can have while in a school setting.

Understanding the nature of needs

Animals are great listeners. When a child gains responsibility, in this case for the care of animals, but in other areas also, they enjoy a magical metamorphosis and suddenly display far more “adult” behaviours.

For all of us, an activity with purpose is far more memorable and significant than one without. It is fair to say that children and adults alike will struggle to talk about their feelings and emotions from time to time. Giving children the chance to talk about how animals interact with each other and with other people around them, can help them to explore topics of emotion without the anxiety or self-consciousness that can often occur when the focus of the conversation is purely on ourselves.

From caring for animals, to feeding them, talking to them, sharing worries and thoughts and understanding when to approach an animal and when to keep your distance, children can start to identify certain similarities or correlation in human behaviours. For example, understanding the nature of needs – those physical first perhaps and then further aspects of wellbeing to follow – can be a beneficial step forward for a child.

Understanding the vocabulary around when we are hot or cold, hungry, thirsty, sheltered or exposed, stimulated or bored, affiliative or lonely can also help children to better understand how to look after their own needs as well as develop empathy and care for the needs of others.

The reliability of animal reaction is comforting

The on-site animals at our school are moved from paddock to paddock periodically to make sure they remain stimulated and interested by their environment. No animal lives on its own and the children look explicitly at how companionship and affiliation can be so beneficial to our wellbeing. This seems to be an ever-important point, as we hope to leave Covid lockdowns behind us and remember how to socialise with one another again.

Interestingly, there is a biological effect that occurs when you stroke a pet or interact closely with an animal. Our heart rate eases, our breathing improves and from a therapeutic perspective there is a sense of mindfulness to the activity.

It is particularly powerful with certain types of animals and donkeys are great at this, in the way that they reflect the emotions a child brings towards them. If the child is a bit hectic or noisy, they move away. If the child is calm and welcoming, the animals feel it is safe to approach and interact. Children spot this quickly especially those who lack natural empathy. The reliability of the animals’ reaction is comforting.

Learning that you can gain positive responses by being calm rather than chaotic is a highly valuable life lesson for a child who has learned in one way or another that aggression equates to power.

Getting the children to consider which animals go well together to share a paddock has helped to bring out themes of friendships that work and relationships that don’t. This also demonstrates that sometimes it is possible for people or animals to be in the same space where they can “co-exist” by managing to be neither friends nor enemies. This can be a positive message to avoid rivals fixating on each other and as a strategy through which they can “move on” from an argument.

Options for schools that cannot house animals

Of course, many schools will not have the space or the facilities to house animals on site, particularly schools based in cities or indeed smaller schools with less physical space.

Schools like mine are fortunate to have the space to house resident animals, but my previous headship was in central London, without a blade of grass in sight, so in some cases it can be more challenging.
But there are still several ways to introduce animals into your school community. There are many opportunities to arrange for exciting visitors to come into school who can bring birds of prey and all sorts of exotic animals for the children to enjoy seeing – as well as small-scale pets that can live in classrooms and go to houses at the weekends by rotation.
One of the best options for schools is to collaborate or partner with a city farm or a local animal rescue centre, because the real benefits of interaction between children and animals are cultivated through hours of time spent with them over weeks and months, rather than exciting one-off events – which although insightful and fun, may have less long-term impact on shaping behaviours and boosting wellbeing through animal therapy

  • Jon Gray is the head of York House School in Hertfordshire, an independent prep school for girls and boys aged three to 13.

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