In the last two weeks, we’ve talked about the benefits of pet ownership for babies and toddlers. This week, we’ll discuss the benefits to preschoolers, the age who seems to get the most benefit from pet ownership!
Before you learn about how beneficial pets can be to children of any age, be sure to take a look at the infographic I referenced here to make sure that you find out if getting a pet is the right decision for you and your family.
By the time children reach preschool age, they have become much more responsible, much more verbal and simply more capable of playing with and caring for pets appropriately. They will still need plenty of guidance and assistance from you, but they can be given more freedom to interact with and care for the pet without your step-by-step guidance and intervention.
If you’ve been guiding a child since infancy in how to interact with and care for pets, then the preschool years are a wonderful time to watch what your child has learned during those years. However, if the preschool years are the first years in which your child is being exposed to a pet, then it would be inappropriate to expect that she will have the understanding of how to appropriately interact with and care for a pet. If this is the case, you may need to start with toddler-level interventions until she graduates to an age-appropriate understanding of pets.
By the time a child reaches preschool age, if she has been watching you to care for her household fish, she can do many of the care tasks on her own.
For example, a preschooler can be reminded to feed the fish every day when she wakes up and should have the skill to do this on her own. Of course, an adult should always remind the preschooler to ensure that the fish’s meal isn’t dependent upon a 4-year-old’s memory!
And the adult should monitor the child’s ability to measure the right amount of food at the beginning, and periodically as she is completing this task on her own to ensure that the fish is getting just the right amount of food—not too little and not too much.
When it comes to cleaning the fish tank, at this point, the preschooler should be able to tell you what steps to take when cleaning the fish tank. While I don’t recommend allowing your child to do it all by herself due to how dirty the water can get or how heavy the fish tank or bowl can get when filled with water, there are many tasks that your preschooler can do on her own.
Ask your preschooler, “Ok it is time to clean the fish tank. What do we need to do first?” If she is right, then tell her that and proceed to help her as needed to complete the task.
Once she has finished that task, then ask her what is next. Make sure that you are checking on the steps one by one to ensure that she doesn’t jump ahead to another task that isn’t safe for her or the fish. Remind her to talk out her steps with you first to ensure everyone’s safety.
In the earlier years, you have been the one to point out what you saw the fish doing. You discussed when the fish was eating the food or when the fish was swimming through the bubbles that popped to hide in the castle. Now that your preschooler is verbal and capable of conversation, ask her what the fish is doing.
A preschooler will likely have a story to share about how the princess fish is playing in the bubbles until her daddy tells her that she has to stop playing and come inside to her castle home to eat her supper. If you don’t ask your child what is in her brain, she might not share this wonderful story with you.
It is so valuable for her development that you have these conversations with her, that you listen to what she has to say and that you respond with questions about her story to encourage creative thinking and conversation in general. You could ask questions like:
- What is the daddy fish’s name?
- What are the fish going to have for supper?
- Are there other members of this fish family? If so, what are their names?
Have fun with your child as you help her to develop her creativity and language skills.
Cats and Dogs
At this point, your preschooler and dog and/or cat are likely best friends. Your preschooler has someone to play with day in and day out, and even though these animals cannot “talk” to your preschooler, your preschooler has plenty of conversations with her best friend.
These experiences are so valuable to your child’s development because they foster creativity and imagination. Enjoy these moments as you watch your child engage in “conversation” with her furry friend and resist the temptation to introduce your own ideas, unless your child is being harmful to the pet.
By this age, a preschooler can handle many of the pet care responsibilities. Parents can remind their preschooler to feed the dog each morning when she wakes up or at night while mom and dad are making supper.
Supervision is still necessary, but at this point a preschooler has the motor skills to open the bag, scoop the food and pour the food into the bowl without spilling (for the most part!). The preschooler also has the cognitive capacity to understand how much food to give, assuming that you’ve been working on this with her up to this point.
Preschoolers can help to remember what needs to be taken when it is time to go for a walk, for example: “Ok, we are about to go on a walk. What do we need to bring along with us on the walk?”
When your preschooler mentions something, have her grab it and bring it to you so that she can have a visual of what she has remembered and what is still missing.
At this age, preschoolers can be trusted more than toddlers to be gentle with animals. They can assist with more of the hands-on care like giving the dog a bath, and brushing the dog or cat. Supervision should still be provided to ensure that gentle touches are used with the animal, but preschoolers who have already been instructed on how to be gentle with animals should have enough experience at this point to demonstrate what they know. If a preschooler can’t be gentle, then she should be asked to stop helping to ensure the safety of the animal.
Rodents and Small Animals
Rodents and small animals can be fun pets for children to watch. Children may develop a strong relationship with their caged small animals, even if they don’t get to play with them as hands-on as they are able to play with their cats and dogs.
If you’ve involved your child in the care of their small caged animals in the past, your preschooler may have developed a love for the animal and a desire to care for that animal and keep him safe and happy. Encourage that desire by praising how responsible you preschooler is with the small animal’s needs.
Your preschooler will develop the skill to notice when their animal is running low or out of food and water. While you should keep an eye on these levels yourself, it is an important part of development for your child to understand how to identify problems/needs. If you’ve noticed that the animal is low on food or water, instead of taking care of the problem yourself, engage your child in the experience.
Say, “Hey, it looks like the hamster is almost out of food and doesn’t have any water left. What do you think we should do?” Allow your preschooler to discuss options, which hopefully include giving more food and water. Talk with your preschooler about your expectation that she pay attention to food and water levels and tell you whenever she notices that they are low.
While many rodents and small animals can carry germs and diseases, some of them can be safe if the child understands good hand hygiene. If you’ve researched that your rodent or small animal is safe for children if hand washing takes place, then allow your preschooler to play with the animal outside of the cage.
But before you do, set your expectations for how to safely play with the animal first. Talk about the rules for nice touches, how to be gentle with the animal and how to keep the animal and the child safe. Let your child know what the consequences will be for breaking these rules and explain that the consequences must occur immediately to ensure safety to the animal and the child.
These rules will vary depending upon the animal, the skills of your child, and the physical space that you have available.
As your child plays with the pet, talk about the experience.
What does your child feel as she holds the pet?
What does she see?
How does your child think the pet feels? Happy to be free? Scared to be so tiny surrounded by giant humans? Curious to explore this unexplored territory?
What does she hear? Does the animal make different noises when outside of the cage? Why does your preschooler think the animal is making these noises?
What safe activities can she come up with to play with the animal? Does the animal like these activities? Talk about how you can tell that the animal likes it or doesn’t like it.
At this point in her life, a preschooler may be interested in the life of a pet bird, or any of her pets. She may be tempted ask thousands of questions about the who, what, where and why of the life of her pet bird.
You may be tempted to ask her to stop asking so many questions, but it is important that you understand the developmental benefits to her questions and the possible answers she gives to these questions, as well as the lessons that she can learn from you when you answer these questions for her or explore these answers together.
Your preschooler may enjoy playing with her pet bird, especially a bird that chirps back in response to what she has to say. Sit back and watch as she plays teacher to her bird or asks her bird’s opinion about what to play next. Again, development of an imagination and creativity is so important in child development, and you have a front row seat as you watch her showcase these skills!
If you think that your preschooler is capable, perhaps you can try teaching her how to hold the bird. Talk with your preschooler about how to be calm, quiet and still in order to hold her bird. Practice this by (1) role modeling for your preschooler how to stand when holding the bird and (2) allowing your child to practice without the bird, by holding her arm out as she would if she were holding the bird.
When you think that your child has mastered the stance and that she is ready to hold the bird, gently transfer the bird to her hand and offer gentle guidance and suggestions to make the experience positive for both the child and the bird.
Playing with her bird isn’t the only benefit to having a bird in the house.
Like many of the pets discussed in this series, birds come with a lot of responsibilities. The cage must be cleaned; the bird must be fed; the cage must be closed when finished cleaning to ensure that the bird doesn’t escape. Many of these tasks can be accomplished by a preschooler, with the supervision of an adult.
Adults can complete this task using their own discretion, allowing the preschooler to do the tasks that she is capable of and helping or doing for the child the tasks that seem too difficult, dangerous or unsanitary for the preschooler to do on her own.
So there you have it…the developmental benefits for babies, toddlers and preschoolers of pet ownership. Parents should remember that in the early childhood years, there can be major developmental benefits to almost any age-appropriate experience, but the benefit doesn’t come simply from the experience. The benefit comes from the conversation and engagement between the child and an adult with whom the child has a strong relationship.
Are you taking advantage of all of the stimulating experiences that your child could benefit from?