The animal as fourth educator: A literature review of animals and young children in pedagogical relationships

Jane Bone
Monash University

This literature review presents the case for acknowledging the animal in early childhood settings as the fourth educator. This idea builds on the work of Malaguzzi (1998), who proposed the environment as third teacher. Drawing on a range of research as well as changing perspectives about the animal and child relationship, the literature presented here argues for the animal to be considered respectfully as a pedagogical support and motivator for learning. The review covers interdisciplinary aspects of the field of human and animal relationships and also draws on new work about animals in mechanical/robot form. These animal and machine intersections come together in posthuman theory. The review highlights opportunities for research in this increasingly important area.

Over the past decade there has been a growing awareness of the important role of animals in the lives of children and their families (Myers, 2007; Tipper, 2011). In this literature review I am arguing that there is evidence to support a reconceptualisation of the animal as the fourth educator in early childhood settings. This notion of the fourth educator is a deliberate echo of Loris Malaguzzi’s statement that the environment is ‘the third educator’ (Gandini,1998, p. 177), the first two being the team of two teachers always present in the Italian preschools of Reggio Emilia. Malaguzzi described the environment in these early childhood settings as ‘a space that teaches’ (Gandini, 1998, p. 177). This idea is expanded here to include the animal that is almost always present in one form or another in Western early childhood environments.

In early childhood education the animal as teacher is a taken-for-granted pedagogical force. My approach in making this argument is to review the research literature and add to a field that increasingly recognises the importance of the animal in the social worlds of children. These connections take diverse forms and in early childhood may link to family life, to play and to all learning that supports a blurred boundary between self and Other (Bone, 2010). Increased interest in the animal may also be the result of concern about environmental issues along with a growing recognition that the environment is never empty but is always a habitat for mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and insect life and together we are all part of the ecological systems we exist within.

Contemporary ideas, theoretical perspectives and influences from the past are acknowledged. Finally, attention is paid to the research literature that explores what happens when the animal is a robot or virtual pet.

Starting with the animal
A Kato Creation Story states that when God went forth to create the world he took his dog with him (Gaita, 2002). Gaita (2002) looks at the relationship between people, dogs and philosophy and makes the point that throughout history the animal of one kind or another, wild, domesticated or confined, has been living alongside people (Gaita, 2002; Melson, 2001; Serpell, 1999). To continue to get along together has long been seen as the key to our future survival, a ‘project for a planet’ (Flannery, 2013, p. 77). While the word ‘animal’ means different things to different people, the relationship has existed for a long time.

From an Australian perspective, Krien (2011) says that ‘2011 was a big year for animals’ (p. 3) and she notes the flood of animal-printed clothing evident on the street and increased media publicity for controversial animal issues. In that year young children were involved in protests about the ill treatment of animals and joined demonstrations organised by animal protection agencies (see websites below). Images of these protests on websites show that animal issues can cause great debate and be very emotive. The posters carried during the protest urge kindness to animals and there is growing support for Luk, Staiger and Wong’s (1999, p. 35) contention that not being kind is ‘a serious social issue’. The presence of children at the protests is a reminder that they participate in society in many roles; as children become conscious of their own ability to contribute they may also become more aware of the rights of others. There is a likelihood that these children have pets at home. In a survey of children aged 10–16 years in Slovakia, Prokop and Tunnicliffe (2010) found that ownership of animals meant that the attitude toward all other animals, including those considered fearful or ‘disgusting’, was more positive.

Wilson’s (1984) ‘biophilia’ hypothesis suggested that positive thoughts about living things encourage love of the environment and this has been explored in terms of children’s development (Kahn, 1997) and more recently in work about children and their interactions in the natural world (Louv, 2008). The question of whether interactions with animals, at home or in an early childhood setting, contributes to more positive feelings about the environment is an interesting one. The link is emphasised by Melson (2001) who advocates for a ‘biocentric’ approach to development recognising that ‘animal presence in all its forms merits neither facile sentimentalizing, nor quick dismissal, but serious investigation’ (p. 5). In the introduction to her influential book, Melson (2001) says that her work is about hypothesis building and a biocentric approach to education is yet to be realised. Her comprehensive investigative study builds a case for an approach that recognises children must ‘gain a sense of their own place in a multispecies world’ (Melson, 2001, p. 199); it is this aspect that animals themselves are called upon to teach.

Some studies begin to address the argument that the animal can be considered a major educator about the cycle of life and the rules of ecology. Ergazaki and Andriotou (2010) asked 70 four- and five-year-old pre-schoolers in Greece a series of questions designed to elicit understanding about ecosystems. Children were asked about the consequences of the destruction of a forest and showed that they were responding because of their vitalistic knowing, defined by the authors as an awareness about what living means and what living beings need in terms of food and shelter. They suggest that children’s answers were ‘fauna-centric’ (Ergazaki & Andriotou, 2010, p. 199) because they were concerned about the animals and knew that in the case of damage to the forest the animals might lose their source of food. This understanding showed that young children can make connections between human damage to the animals’ environment and loss of food and habitat.

Animals outside the usual experience of the young child will still be classified by them as animal because children show strong understandings of biology. In Margett and Witherspoon’s (2011) study 34 children aged three–five years were tested about this knowledge. The authors were interested in how young children conceptualise ‘living and nonliving kinds’ (p. 2067). They used the animal as a research aid and ‘Sam-Bow’(sic), a glove puppet dog was introduced. The children were told that ‘Sam-Bow had lived for a long time in his doghouse and now would like to know about things found in the world’ (Margett & Witherspoon, 2011, p. 2071). The children classified the animals as more alive than plants and decided that mobile and immobile artefacts are non-living. In their approach the researchers demonstrate that the use of an animal encourages positive learning interactions. In a small-scale study with 12 children aged three–six years, Gee, Crist and Carr (2010) found that when children were with a live dog, as opposed to a person or stuffed dog, they needed less instruction and were highly motivated to learn. The children indicated that they could copy the calm behaviour of the dog and they displayed considerably more focus on the task they were required to do. These research findings add powerfully to the idea that the animal is a friendly co-participant in learning and an ally to the young child. As Friesen (2010) notes about therapy dogs ‘children seem to perceive them as non-judgemental participants who are outside of the complications and expectations of human relationships’ (p. 261). The comforting presence of the animal as a supporter of learning underlines why animals are so effective in their pedagogical role.

Animals, ethics and speciesism
The animal as teacher is evident in children’s books where they appear in a range of roles. In picture books images of animals are often anthropomorphic and visual representations of the animal both reflect and construct cultural values. Reading about animals in books has been shown to transfer to knowledge about biology (Ganea, DeLoach & Ma, 2011). However, the books available for young children feature some animals and not others and are often concerned with the exotic or the endangered. Many children’s books are about companion animals (pets) but they seldom feature farm animals or the rights of animals. The animal teaches only what keeps adults comfortable. Reading material reflects the values that are attached to animals (Duhn, 2012) and very few of them disturb the status quo. A book by Roth (2009) features the animal in a direct pedagogical role that gives information some educators might feel uncomfortable with. Roth’s (2009) book explains that ‘pigs need the sight, sound, and touch of one another. Sometimes they snuggle so close that it’s hard to get them apart. Love is part of their nature’. This kind of book challenges the treatment of animals as an industrial product. Through advertising, people are more used to seeing the end result (chickens extolling the merits of fried chicken wings, for example) than having a book that might present facts that give rise to controversial questions. Depending on the socio-cultural context, young children may come to know the animal in terms of economic return rather than as a support to wellbeing or as a sentient creature (Potts, 2012).

In this sense it is clear that the role of the animal as educator is limited by adult discomfort and moral dilemmas (Herzog, 2010). A growing body of research is showing that young children make their own moral decisions regarding animals, more specifically about whether or not to eat them (Hussar & Harris, 2009). This research about children’s moral decision-making is challenging for many adults who, in Herzog’s (2010) recent study, show blurred moral boundaries about these issues. What is clear is that for many reasons, mainly economic, the animal is rarely used to support useful health information about diet. The lifelong benefits of not eating red meat are not shared adequately with children and their families (Pan et al., 2012).

Ethical issues around what the philosopher Peter Singer (2009) calls ‘speciesism’ are confronting. Like all—isms, speciesism is about discrimination against some species simply because of what they are and how they have been constructed. In this case, the animal may be considered a pest or a pet on fairly arbitrary grounds. The divide is wide and the role of the animal as teacher is determined by this construction. Animal categorisations are not simple, and how animals are regarded is culturally determined (Gray & Young, 2011). Young children may learn about the status of an animal through familiarity with religious customs and beliefs (Oliver, 2009). In this regard the idea that human beings are ‘part of the Great Ape family too’ (Jenkins, 2007) may be controversial. This is a statement in a picture book for young children that might not be universally acceptable. Sometimes the animal is enlisted to help children (and adults) change their perceptions, especially if they are endangered. The role of cheetahs in zoos is to be ‘ambassadors’ for their species and to teach people to appreciate them. An animal can become a teacher about conservation, especially when a behavioural change is desired (Davey, 2006), although at the cost of its freedom.

Therapeutic contexts
One of the best-known accounts of the animal as educator was written by Temple Grandin (2006), an inspirational figure in the fields of autism/Asperger’s Syndrome and animal rights. She learned that feelings of peace and calm were possible when she touched cattle or horses and suggests that, even in the most difficult circumstances, it is possible to learn empathy from contact with animals. Grandin (2006) is a powerful advocate for active teaching in terms of what can be learned by children through contact with animals.

In the Western world some animals have the status of pet or ‘companion species’ and these animals have been shown to be especially effective with children who require additional support in educational settings (Walsh, 2009). The effect of dogs in therapeutic contexts or AAT (animal-assisted therapies) has been the focus for research over a longer period than studies about their effect in educational settings. Martin and Farnum (2002) noticed that children with developmental disorders were calmer and more responsive when a live dog was present. Their research involved studying children with a non-social toy (a ball), a stuffed toy (dog) and a real dog. They found that with a live dog present the children were more likely to respond to requests and to engage in meaningful discussion. This finding may well extend to all children, although it is worth noting that the work of animals in AAT is specialised and specific.

The use of companion animals in this way requires me to ask what Thompson and Gullone (2003, p. 177) term the ‘emotive question’: does the love of animals correlate to a love of people? Their overview of the research literature was based on the question of whether interactions with animals can promote empathy through a ‘humane education’ (p. 176), an approach that includes direct contact with animals. They refer to Paul (2000) who suggested that people who experience the apparent emotion of an animal will be more likely than others to have an emotional reaction when witnessing the same emotion in another human (Paul, 2000, cited in Thompson & Gullone, 2003).

Research with companion animals, usually dogs and cats, supports a belief expressed by Risley-Curtiss (2010) that interactions between humans and companion animals are ‘powerful relationships’. Risley-Curtiss (2010) concludes that there are three main reasons for recognising the educative potential of companion animals: first, they are routinely considered part of the family; second, cruelty to an animal in the family can indicate oppression and violence against women and children; finally, these animals have ‘a therapeutic impact on the functioning of people of all ages’ (p. 39). This final reason encourages me to reflect that in the early childhood context the animal may encourage positive behaviours in educators and parents as well as in children.

Part of the family
In a recent sociological study that arose as part of a larger project about ‘who matters’ in the everyday lives of children, Tipper (2011) made discoveries about how children perceive the animals in their lives. While her study focused on the relationship of children with their pets, she also found that they know about issues of extinction and sustainability. This study focused on children aged seven–12 years. Forty-nine children were interviewed and completed a map made up of concentric circles that showed how emotionally close they were to people and animals. Tipper (2011, p. 158) noted that ‘children readily expressed affection for animals, spoke about them as individuals, friends and kin. Not only were children unashamed of these connections, but they spoke at length about animals and frequently reoriented the interview discussion towards animals … ’ (author italics). Tipper’s (2011) work supports the contention that overlooking these relationships reflects adult ambivalence about the role of animals in children’s lives. Her work highlights the fact that very few studies are conducted with younger children despite animals featuring so strongly in family life and in many early childhood settings.

One attractive aspect of Tipper’s (2011) qualitative approach is that it features the voices of children. Apart from advocating for the inclusion of children’s perspectives in research about humans and animals Tipper (2011, p. 149) also makes the point that animals matter ‘in their own right’ (author italics). She feels that children’s experiences with animals are marginalised in the field of human–animal studies and mentions that rectifying this could present ‘a more rounded picture of children’s lives’ (Tipper, 2011, p. 149). Research with children supports what is already known about the importance of animals in the family lives of adults. Walsh (2009) mentions a national survey whereby 57 per cent of adults said that if they were stranded on a desert island they would choose the family pet as their companion. All this is relevant to early childhood education whereby building and maintaining links to families is seen as vital to best practice.

Family violence
Research that addresses violence in families contributes to a growing body of research showing that the animal is often a victim in abusive family contexts. These studies emphasise the sad fact that ‘abusing animals, and possibly observing abuse by others, is likely to have negative developmental consequences for children’ (Williams, Dale, Clarke & Garrett, 2008). The effect of knowing this may mean that educators take notice of the stories they are told about animals in the home, a link that has commonly been ignored (Risley-Curtiss, 2010). It is hopeful to think that children who have positive relationships with animals may find it harder to be violent in later life (Alach, 2003; Thompson & Gullone, 2003) and in this sense the animal is teaching something valuable. When even owning a pet (dog) was shown to elicit attachment behaviours, such as love and caring (Zasloff, 1996), then if something happens to that pet there is bound to be corresponding distress.

Treatment of animals in early childhood settings
What is rather strange learning for children in many early childhood settings is that animals, which may be very important to them, are expendable and are often not seen to have a reliable and permanent carer. The literature includes some critique of the way animals are looked after and the arrangements that do not seem to benefit them. Some animals and birds go home with a different family each weekend. Sometimes their death is treated lightly and adults refer jokingly to flushing goldfish down the toilet. A teacher at a conference mentioned an animal graveyard or urupa in her presentation about a preschool environment in New Zealand. A ripple of laughter went around the room and she had to defend a philosophy based on indigenous beliefs whereby the relationships between animals and children were taken seriously in that particular setting. When animals are teaching about loyalty, love and affection it gives a mixed message if children do not see this reciprocated and do not see educators giving these important fourth educators the respect they deserve (Melson, 2001; Young, 2009).

Young (2009) noted that animals are appreciated up to a point in an educative role but that teachers often miss an opportunity to develop ‘deeper ecological understandings’ (p. 209) with young children. She cites an example whereby possums were being fed but the nature and status of the animal as wild and indigenous to Australia went unrecognised. The condition of being ‘tamed’ is not always a happy one for animals as this usually ends badly for the animal. Maybe the fate of some animals (to be eaten or hunted) or their shorter life spans means that adults are uneasy about making them too much a part of children’s lives. This highlights a dilemma, as in an educational setting animals may become, as Tipper (2011, p. 149) noted, ‘objects for human utility’ rather than ‘individuals with whom children relate and for whom they care’.

In her classroom observations Melson (2001) noticed that the animals did not have the same status as a pet who may become a much loved part of the family. Despite the best efforts of the teacher who believed strongly that the animal was teaching children certain things, Melson (2001) felt that this was more hoped for than achieved. She felt that the children en masse were excited by the animals and would chase or squeeze them as ‘things’ rather than as living creatures who were entitled to respect. Melson described noticing a subtle change in the relationship with them. She points out that ‘in a classroom, zoo, or nature centre, animals, even the same species kept as household pets, are no longer companions, confidants, and loved ones—in other words, intimates; they become objects of inquiry’ (Melson, 2001, p. 74). While affirming their pedagogical role, this does not augur well for the animal, and some undesirable learning may occur. Melson (2001, p. 74) was concerned that the children became ‘veterans of animal loss and replacement’, and the talk between the teacher and the children, who were six years old, had a ‘slightly hard edge’ (p. 73). The animal is teaching but educators need to be critical and reflective about what is being learned. One of the more questionable arguments for using (exploiting) the animal as the fourth teacher with young children is that the animal will ‘teach them about death’. It might be dubious practice to use the animal in this way, especially as children are so often told ‘we can get another one’. In this case young children may be learning that animals are disposable. The research literature suggests that animals may be much better teachers about life and love (Bone, 2011).

Play and the animal
The appearance of the animal in play has often been seen as imitative and in psychological terms might be seen as the emergence of the ‘animal within’ (author italics) (Serpell, 2000, p. 110). In animal play it is possible for touch, a mediator of emotion, to change what may be unacceptable or ‘too rough’ to a sanctioned form of activity if the children/dogs begin to roll on the floor to be patted and stroked (Bone, 2010). The animal might take on a fantasy or monstrous form and may be seen as a ‘gateway’ into a different world (Serpell, 2000). The idea of the animal as a powerful mediator of concepts and learning is being increasingly explored (DeLoache, Pickard & LoBue, 2011).

The animal as fourth teacher really comes into its own in play interactions that have been interpreted as gender work. Young children are close observers of humans and animals, and play this out by becoming a kitten or puppy in a particular way (Blaise, 2011). Madrid and Kantor (2009) show that as researchers there were possibilities to enter a long-term ‘play narrative’ called ‘kitties’ (Madrid & Kantor, 2009, p. 229). They noticed that the teachers supported this narrative by providing certain props (leashes, blankets, bowls) and that the girls built on their knowledge of family pets to build the narrative. Their story used the notion of ‘kitty’ to create ‘a rich play theme that focused on supporting relationships, negotiating power and constructing and contesting gendered identities’ (Madrid & Kantor, 2009, p. 233). The children aged between three and five years showed that they had used the animal as teacher to construct rules, so the boys could be protective but not join the group, and when excluded were labelled ‘dogs’. The boys themselves made it clear that ‘males could be kitties but they did not like to be kitties’ (Madrid & Kantor, 2009, p. 235). The children used their knowledge of everything they had learned from animals to construct these rules in order to ritualise male and female positions.

Health and safety
Being taught through proximity to animals that living creatures can be unpredictable is useful knowledge for young children. Occasionally the animal will teach children a lesson in consequences, but this is often not seen in a way that is positive to the animal. If an animal bites a child there is usually little thought given to the context. I am referring here to what might happen in day-to-day interactions in an educational setting, not to tragic events when children are savaged by dogs. Jalongo (2008) identifies young children as particularly at risk of bites because they are smaller and they may approach animals in a way that leads to aversive experiences for all parties. She recommends that educators work with the animal so that together they teach children to observe certain safety rules when approaching animals. In this way animals become part of the curriculum and help to keep children safe from the kind of attack that happens only too often. Referring specifically to handling dogs, Jalongo (2008, p. 40) makes prevention a feature of learning in early childhood and states that:

Early childhood educators and families need to understand the causes of dog bites, learn how to teach the key prevention concepts to young children, and become aware of the resources that will enable them to integrate material on dog safety training into the early childhood curriculum.

Her emphasis on health and safety is shared by Meadan and Jegatheeson (2010), who recommend that attention is paid to allergies, to inoculation (animals) and to the general state of health of the animal. This is important when the inclusion of an animal as curriculum may be controversial. Dogs are considered by some cultures and religions to be unclean, and in multicultural contexts such as Australia this is an issue that must be negotiated in early childhood settings. Health and safety issues are important. Hygiene rules about hand washing need to be in place to avoid diseases such as toxoplasmosis, a dangerous parasitic disease contracted by contamination through cat faeces. Meadan and Jegatheeson (2010) recommend that, when the animal is a presence in educational environments, there is close supervision by adults as a way to minimise risk. This works in the interests of both children and animals. Recently I saw animals being squeezed, poked and not allowed to rest as they taught young children about being ‘on the farm’. A disinterested adult looked on while the animals did their pedagogical duty.

The pedagogical role of the animal
For many researchers who explore the animal and human connection the animal is a conduit for learning to be human; some propose that it is only through the animal that we recognise our humanity. This is described by Oliver (2009, p. 21) as ‘animal pedagogy’. Oliver (2009, p. 22) is interested in this as ‘an ethics of relationality and responsivity’ (author italics). Oliver (2009) recognises that the animal has been a source of information about children and their behaviour for years but until recently attempts were made to emphasise difference and to use the animal as a means of promoting human superiority. Studies for many years have shown that animals and humans are more alike than different, and, as Bartowski (2008, p. 19) notes, ‘kinship matters’. Myers’ (2007) ground-breaking work, first published in 1998, is one of the few empirical research studies that set out to show the strength and specialness of social relationships between children and animals. He concludes that ‘we should reconsider our self-image as a species, as a separate ‘humanity’ (p. 181). Myers (2007) spent time with 23 children aged from three-and-a-half years to six. His study was one of the first to explore ‘connectedness’ between children and animals, and he started from the premise that ‘living animals are central presences to young children’ (p. 6).

Posthuman perspectives
Myers’ (2007, p. 33) work challenges the emphasis on difference when used to assert dominance of one species over another. The rise of interest in posthuman theory supports this while acknowledging biological difference. Posthuman theory disrupts the nature/culture binary and can be linked to indigenous worldviews that have traditionally questioned animate/inanimate divisions (see Deborah Rose Bird, 1992, on the cosmology of the Yarallin people). Posthuman theory addresses interspecies relatedness and explores the shifting boundaries between animals (human and other-than-human or more-than-human), materials (Giugni, 2011) and machines. The work of Donna Haraway (2008) has proved to be an inspiration in work about connections between animals and people (Bone, 2010; Taylor, Blaise & Giugni, 2012). Haraway’s (2003) book, The Companion Species Manifesto, outlines ways that dogs and people relate in ‘significant otherness’ (p. 25). She describes the hard work that animals do and the risk of being a pet (especially a dog), noting ‘the risk of abandonment when human affection wanes, when people’s convenience takes precedence, or when the dog fails to deliver on the fantasy of unconditional love’ (Haraway, 2003, p. 38). These risks are all pertinent to animals that live and work in early childhood settings.

Robots and other animals
In new research with robots and mechanical animals it has been argued that there are opportunities for new discoveries about the human capacity to relate to machines as human/animal interrelatedness without the risks. In a study with a robot it was shown that toddlers will bond over time with the robot (Tanaka, Cicourel & Mouvellan, 2007). However, in another study, slightly older children knew that certain artefacts were living or not living and were clear about who had ‘naming’ rights; for example, a starfish but not a toy car (Jipson & Gelman, 2007). Working with children from three years old, the authors realised that children have a clear awareness of what is ‘real’ in terms of aliveness and what is not. Greif, Nelson, Keil and Gutierrez (2009) feel that this knowledge is evident when children ask questions about animals or artefacts. They suggest that this requires educators to be mindful about the information they present about artefact or animal.

Thrift (2010) suggests that a rise in interest in ‘electrical animals’ may be a way of reducing amensalism ‘a living together in which one species hurts another, sometimes unknowingly’ (p. 475). While there may be ethical or health reasons to promote the use of robotic pets, the ability of children to differentiate between the living and not living means that a mechanical pet may not have the same effect as a living animal. This form of pet does mean that there are alternatives to a real animal if no one can commit to being a consistent animal caregiver. The robotic pet may also be more acceptable for children with allergies, and some parents might approve of robots rather than real animals. For some animal rights groups the status of animals as ‘pets’ is in itself problematic (Herzog, 2010).

In the limited space of this review I argue that it is time to consider human and animal relationships in early childhood settings in all their complexity and variety. The state of the world’s animal population can be described by a range of words: disappearing, threatened, endangered, suffering, confined, pampered, trained, savage, wild, exploited, loved, hunted, cared for, diseased, controlled, tamed, protected. This review highlights the need for more research about taken-for-granted relationships that are now taking on new ethical dimensions.

These relationships extend beyond early childhood settings into the family and home. When Malaguzzi (1998) made the case for considering the environment as third educator there was a resurgence of interest in the environment and a new emphasis on the pedagogical possibilities of enriched and aesthetically pleasing environments. My hope in making this argument for the animal to be acknowledged as the fourth educator is that the same consideration may be given and similar benefits accrue for both animals and young children in the settings where they are learning to live together.

Kate Bone, my daughter, an inspiring animal advocate and excellent proofreader and as Lyn White of Animals Australia always says, ‘for the animals’, as well as for the children.

Animals Australia:

PETA—People for the ethical treatment of animals:

RSPCA—Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals:

SAFE—Society for the Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals:

WSPA—World Society for the Protection of Cruelty for Animals:

(Note: WSPA has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.)

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Australasian Journal of Early Childhood—Volume 38 No 2 June 2013
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