Richard Louv, the insightful author of Last Child in the Woods, told us that "When we deny our children nature we deny them beauty". It makes me wonder exactly what else we are denying our children when we fail to provide them with opportunities to engage with the other precious animals with whom we share this world.
Maria Montessori certainly recognised the value of providing children with a connection to animals. She was able, in her inimitably wise way, to discern the incredibly powerful influence that these relationships can offer; not just to the body and mind but also to the soul itself. She reflected that when “the child is initiated into the observation of the phenomena of life... he stands with respect to the plants and animals in relations analogous to those in which the observing teacher stands before him.” Dr Montessori felt such reverence and respect for the children in her care - at once amazed by their abilities and humbled by her role in providing for them - and she could see that these feelings were reflected in the way that the child stood before the animals in their care.
I see this same phenomena regularly in my Pre-school. It is important to me that we ensure that animals are part of our environment - we encourage wild birds into our garden, we track the movements of a local koala who inhabits the gum trees on our street (and recently jumped the fence into our playground!). We also invite tiny visitors into our classroom - we have seen silkworms hide themselves in their silky sleeping bag before emerging as moths...then mating and leaving new eggs for us to observe! We have also experienced the immense privilege of watching some hopping mice give birth to a litter and then care for the tiny pink pups. At present we have just one constant 'pet' - our beautiful lop-eared rabbit. We try to emphasise to the children that she is not our toy, or our possession, but an important part of our Montessori community.
The presence of our rabbit has a wonderfully positive impact on the children. Children with tears in their eyes, reluctant to separate from mum or dad, suddenly spring into smiles when we mention that we could go pat the rabbit. Children who are otherwise lacking in concentration will focus for long periods to prepare the vegetables and fruits that we will feed her. The rabbit's large hutch is often surrounded by quiet observers, simply enjoying the sense of peace they experience when connecting with this tiny, fluffy creature. And the giggles are immense when she roams 'free-range' around the garden, hopping along with a gaggle of admirers in her wake.
I look at these two images, both taken at my Pre-school, and I see what Maria saw. I witness the child relating to the animal in a way that reflects how the adult relates to the child. The child caring for the animal shares the parent's (or teacher's) desire to protect, to serve, to observe, to engage, to support, to nurture. The sense of love, responsibility and awe is palpable in both relationships.
I love the fact that Emily's relationship with Ringo is so multi-faceted. Sometimes she is his leader, confidently guiding his leash as she strolls along during our walks. Other times she is his playmate, throwing the ball (almost) as many times as he wants and heading off on adventures with him in the park or on the beach (she calls him "my little adventure-dog!"). In the mornings and the evenings she is his carer as she fulfils his basic needs by providing him with food and water. At night their roles reverse somewhat as he becomes her protector; he sits awake beside her until she falls asleep and then settles down beside her to keep her safe all night.
Emily's relationship with our freckly pup brings so much to her life. She feels the self-esteem of being a protector, and the security of being protected. His energy cheers her up, and his cuddles calm her down. Last year Emily went through a particularly tough year in her life (a life that has already been filled with more than its fair share of challenges). During this difficult period it was an enormous relief to me to know that whenever I needed to replenish Emily's stock of happiness I could just bring her to Ringo! When Emily is with Ringo she is her authentic self and she is simply present in the moment. Anyone who is parenting an adolescent girl, or has been one, knows how important it is to keep her connected with these states of being.
One of my favourite things about Emily's bond with Rings is that she characterises herself as his 'Aunty Emily'. We talk a lot about how much Ringo loves his Aunty Emily, and how happy he is when he is with her. I have always known in my heart that my position in Emily's life as her 'Aunty' has been a valuable and powerful influence on her (although Emily and I are technically no more biologically related than she is to Ringo!) . But seeing her asserting this role for herself, playing the part of 'Aunty', is the best compliment that she could ever give me. It allows me to see our relationship through her eyes, to understand the attributes that she identifies and values within our relationship. Her perception of being "Aunty Emily" is that it means being loyal, caring, responsible, reliable, fun and snuggly and I very much hope this is because she has experienced this with me as her "Aunty Jeck". This, too, is what parents and teachers can expect to observe when they allow their children or students to engage authentically in the care of animals. They can observe their own relationships and dynamics reflected in these miniature child-animal interactions.
Emily doesn't need me to tell her to care for Ringo. She hears his 'words', reads his signals and follows his needs. I don't have to ask her to feed him - she can't wait! She often chooses to sit behind him while he eats and just watch him enjoying his dinner. Perhaps she is basking in the sense of pride that comes from providing sustenance - providing life - to a creature who depends on you. The way that Emily reads Ringo's cues, and responds to them without my prompting, brings to mind more of Maria Montessori's words; “Between the child and the living creatures which he cultivates there is born a mysterious correspondence which induces the child to…certain acts without the intervention of a teacher. That is, leads him to an auto-education.” Emily is educating herself in some of life's most valuable lessons simply by virtue of her connection with Ringo.
My relationship with Emily allowed me to bring Ringo into her life. My role at Pre-school offers the chance for me to connect all my little friends with living creatures. And now my work with Montessori Child gives me the opportunity to find tools, toys and treasures that might inspire more families and classrooms to build stronger connections between the child and the animal world.
So I’ve been on the lookout for some unique resources to help facilitate the beautiful and valuable work of caring for animals. I’m trying to seek a balance of tools so that both domesticated pets and ‘wild’ creatures can be cared for. I am still in the early stages of this treasure hunt but I have already found a couple of lovely items to mark the humble beginnings of our ‘Care of Animals’ collection. This assortment will grow with time, and I am very open to suggestion from our clever and creative customers! If you have a favourite resource that helps your child to care for the family pet, or for wild birds or animals please let me know!