Maria Montessori's research work into education lasted her entire life and she attentively watched children to gain a clearer understanding of their potential and essence. Back then in the early 1900s no sophisticated systems existed to investigate human cognition.
Yet, she wrote these words even then: “Children have an anxious concern for living beings, and therefore the satisfaction of this instinct fills them with delight. It is therefore easy to interest them in taking care of plants and especially of animals. Nothing awakens foresight in a small child, who lives as a rule for the passing moment and without care for the morrow, so much as this”. (Translated from: M. Montessori, “La scoperta del bambino” (“The Discovery of the Child”), 1999)
Montessori had already noticed that children find it immensely satisfying to take care of living beings. Indeed, looking after plants and animals is an extremely important part of the Montessori educational method. And this is one of the reasons why, should we have the pleasure of peering into a Montessori classroom, we will see that the environment inevitably contains a collection of plants and small animals.
Why should we encourage children to take care of a pet at home too?
Maria Montessori had sensed that when children take care of pets, they develop a series of skills and positive character traits that go to build up a much more rounded personality.
Today, there are also a variety of recent papers in scientific journals, like the Australian article published on The Journal of Pediatrics in 2020, which confirms that pet ownership is “associated with a series of benefits for physical, mental and social health both in adults and children”. Compared to non-pet owners, adult pet owners are more physically active, have fewer health issues, greater social awareness and a stronger sense of community. As far as children are concerned, the paper reported that children grew up better when there were pets in the household, confirming that animals play a crucial role in youngsters’ social-emotional development and the acquisition of “self-esteem, autonomy, trust, empathy, pro-social behaviour (sharing, help and cooperation) and fewer feelings of loneliness”. However, most work in the field so far has been hindered by methodological issues because research samples are too small and non representational, leading therefore to unreliable results.
Four good reasons to believe in the Montessori educational method
- Taking care of an animal or another living being helps children to develop feelings of compassion and affection for something smaller than them. They learn that their actions can be fundamental for the survival of another living being and realise that they occupy a vital role in an interconnected world. When the child brings an animal food and it responds by eating, the child will feel useful and the bond between them will strengthen. Bringing children to the realisation that everything is interrelated is one of the most significant aims in Montessori philosophy.
- Having an animal to take care of helps kids to develop a sense of responsibility and become more self-confident. It also imparts some major life lessons: remembering to fill the animal's bowl of water so that it doesn’t get thirsty or keeping the pet's space clean allows children to grow into a responsible adult, to understand and appreciate the value of care, and also to accept the inevitability of death.
- Small children aged two or three years in particular will need adult guidance on how to be kind to animals and handle them gently. Initially, they will tend to be rough and careless because they find it difficult to be delicate, but they will learn gradually to be respectful towards the house pet. When they sense the fear of the animal or see it shrink from them, they will quickly adapt their behaviour, with the help of an adult, realising that gestures of “grace and courtesy”, as Montessori called them, are required. Their desire to stroke the pet will speed up the learning process and teach kids that our furry friends must be treated nicely and respected too. What is more, the act of bringing the animal food and water is a vital task that involves motor control.
- Animal ownership teaches youngsters about the existence of other living beings whose growth and life cycles are different to ours. With the help of a grown-up, they will also learn to observe the evolution of nature on a daily basis, asking questions, formulating theories and finding answers. All of this is vitally important for their learning process both at home and outside.
However, children must not be allowed to take care of pets without proper preparation. There must be a clear agreement about when the animal needs to be feed or when the water needs changing so that the child knows exactly what to do and when. It is also imperative that the child knows the quantity of food required to keep the pet in good health. And this is, without doubt, a routine that the child must do with the help of an adult, at least to start with. The set place where the child is to bring the food and water must be easy to reach, free of obstacles and preferably not too far from a tap or other source of water.
Getting a pet: an important choice for the whole family
Getting a pet entails a great deal of responsibility for grown-ups and children alike. Therefore, however beneficial it might be for children’s well-being, the decision must only be reached after having carefully considered a series of factors, such as: available space, frequent absences from the family home, daily working schedules and an aptitude for pet care. It should not be forgotten that children learn how to behave by watching the grown-ups in the family, so the first ones who need to be convinced about welcoming a pet to the home have to be the parents.
If, after due thought, we realise that the presence of a pet could upset the family balance in some way, it would be better to avoid the situation because living with a poorly-managed pet could be counter-productive, not only for the animal, but also for the child. We could find another way to allow the child to spend time with animals, perhaps by getting them to take part in initiatives organised by dog or cat homes in town or by taking them out into the countryside to farms or local agricultural holdings.
In any case, regardless of the decision we reach, the precious lessons learnt by our children when they take care of animals will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
As Maria Montessori said, “The child who has felt a strong love for his surroundings and for all living creatures, who has discovered joy and enthusiasm in work, gives us reason to hope that humanity can develop in a new direction”. (Translated from: M. Montessori – Educazione e pace (Education and Peace))
“Pets Are Associated with Fewer Peer Problems and Emotional Symptoms, and Better Prosocial Behavior: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children” - The Journal of Pediatrics – May 2020
Maria Montessori, Educazione e pace, 2004
Montessori, La scoperta del bambino, 1999