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  • Writer's picturemichelle atterby

The Role of Animal Assisted Learning in Environmental Education

Updated: Jul 11, 2021

"Only mutually respectful, kind, caring, and beneficial relationships with animals ought to be brought into environmental education" Michelle Atterby

"Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem. -A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh)

The key question I ask of my students when interacting with the animals at the Eco Wisdom sanctuary is, "How well are we considering the animal's perspective when we interact with them?" We strive to create a mutually respectful and beneficial environment that is built upon core values and qualities that support learning for both human and non-human animals.

Mutual respect begins with teaching our animals to take treats politely, and developing degrees of stimulus control when working with kids, such as standing quietly or sitting patiently. These behaviours are quite natural when approached with kindness and care. Likewise, we teach kids to be considerate of the animals' need for space, appropriate touch, offering choice and control, and always giving the animals the option to say no, and not volunteer in activities.

Animals are constantly talking through their body language, and vocal sounds. Mindful observation and attentive listening are ways we can gain a deeper understanding of what our animals may be feeling or desiring, and therefore allows for making more informed choices with respect to their needs. Being attentive to our animals' needs requires us to focus, and not give in to the myriad of distractions competing for our attention. As kids learn to see the world from the animals' perspective, empathetic understanding begins to develop.

Attending to the emotional and physical well being of our animals initiates compassionate care giving, and extends appreciation in their participation with us. We want our animals to enjoy being with the kids as much as the kids enjoy being with the animals, while also supporting the animals desire to explore their environment, and engage with other animals, or simply to choose to want to be left alone. Interacting with the animals provides powerful metaphors for how we live our daily lives.

Healthy, caring relationships begins with creating safe and supportive learning environments for kids and animals. This foundational teaching is the first step towards addressing animal welfare, advocacy and the intersection of environment and social justice issues.

References: VanFleet, R. (2017). Animal Assisted Play Therapy. Professional Resource Press.

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