Animals fascinate children. Researchers cite the way they look, sound, move, and feel, as well as improving social interaction and reducing anxiety as some of the reasons. Parents and educators introduce children to the animal kingdom through movies, books, and real-life encounters. This introduction is important in shaping the way children connect to animals in general and specifically wildlife, determining whether the connection is one based on dominance or that of appreciation and respect. Here are a few ways we can help move the needle towards the latter:
Use fact-based educational materials -
Children’s books and movies with animals as protagonists are abundant. Unfortunately, many of them personify animals at best or, in the worst case, perpetuate negative stereotypes. There’s nothing wrong with some imaginative storytelling, but it is important to balance this with some reality. Just like books and movies portraying humans from different races, religions, and sexual identities in a stereotypical manner are becoming a thing of the past, we should also seek to expose our children to materials about animals that provide a more accurate sense of reality. Understanding species' real traits and behaviors can encourage us to appreciate them, reduce fear and antagonism, and motivate us to promote their welfare and survival. Scientific materials such as books and games for young children are now abundant.
Teach about the food chain -
One of the keys to appreciating every animal, also those which are scary, big, smelly, or “ugly,” is that they all have a role on this planet. Be it the biggest, fiercest predator, the funkiest-looking rodent, and everything in between. Understanding the food chain and how it sustains our existence on this planet can disconnect irrelevant adjectives such as “bad” and “evil” from a predator only because it kills their meals. It can help change our perspective, from labeling hyenas as “nasty scavengers” because they eat leftovers to appreciating their contribution to cleaning up the Savannah and preventing diseases. The food chain brings logic to every argument, shoving aside opinion and myth, explaining why things are the way they are and why it’s good for our planet.
Appreciate, from a distance -
Wildlife habitats are decreasing worldwide. Animals are being pushed to urban areas or their vicinity. This phenomenon was enhanced when humans cleared the roads and streets during the peak of the COVID-19 lockdowns, resulting in human-wildlife interaction becoming more frequent than before. It may be fascinating to look at animals near our homes or in the wild, but the risks from human presence range from getting injured from trying to escape, getting used to having people around, and catching diseases. Respecting personal space is one of the first things children are taught in Kindergarten. Applying this as a universal principle to animals is an important step in promoting the notion that they feel and have needs just like us.
Dig deep -
Adults sometimes underestimate children’s learning abilities, keeping the conversation with them on a superficial level. The truth is that kids will surprise you with how much knowledge they can absorb if you speak to them at eye level and use educational materials and games appropriate to their age. Babies can learn to mimic animal sounds before saying “mummy” or “daddy,” providing a great foundation to build on if we want to inform them about wildlife. Using colorful maps, you can show them which animals come from which countries and continents, adding Geography 101 to the syllabus while you’re at it. From there, you can go on and explain the differences between different habitats, relating them to topography your children are familiar with, like mountains, forests, oceans, and grasslands. Teach them about their different body parts and how their origins are tailor-engineered for survival. Another fun concept is relativity, and how some species are bigger, taller, or faster than others.