Bringing a dog into a school classroom may delight students, but could it actually help them learn better? The question is increasingly pertinent, as many schools regularly introduce animals into classes in the hope of stimulating young minds. However, evidence that the presence of animals can have a direct positive effect on learning is scant. Classroom creatures may inspire, but could just as easily be a distraction.
Now a new study, published this week, seeks to shed some light on the issue and concludes that animals in the classroom, with the right safeguards and welfare, can benefit children by reducing stress and anxiety and improving social interaction, motivation and learning. This applies both to children developing normally, say the authors, and those with learning disabilities.
The research review, undertaken by the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, part of Mars Petcare, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, US National Institutes of Health, examined the growing body of evidence from classroom studies. It concludes that the inclusion of animals in the classroom can have an indirect effect on learning by directly affecting motivation, engagement, self-regulation and human social interaction.
‘‘We don’t yet fully understand all the ways that animals can enhance learning,” says WALTHAM researcher Nancy Gee, a co-author of the study. “Kids love creatures, but there is more going on here than simple enthusiasm for other living things. We need more long term studies to gain a better insight into the actual impact of school animals on children’s development.”
The review covered a range of studies, most of which showed some positive outcomes for animals in learning situations. But solid research results were often hard to pin down. For instance several schools have experimented with “reading with dogs” programmes to improve literacy skills. Other reviews suggest these initiatives may positively affect various behavioural processes leading to improved reading. However, in the current study, only nine of the 50 relevant research reports found were peer-reviewed publications with original results. More rigorous research is needed, say the authors, with larger samples, various reading abilities and appropriate controls. Only then will it be possible to determine the value of these programs to improve reading both directly, and indirectly through greater motivation.
The authors also propose a new learning framework for human animal interactions in schools and researchers are invited to test this with field studies.
Above all, say the authors, new science should inform policy. Given the current ubiquity of programs including animals in educational settings, policies will doubtless be proposed and challenged as more teachers attempt to introduce animals into school studies. Therefore, a better understanding is needed as to whether, when, and how the inclusion of animals in education is effective, while assuring the welfare and wellbeing of both the animal and the student.