For the Love of Riley: A Study of the Impact of Animal Interactions in the Development of Empathy in Children
Early Childhood Education professionals teamed up with an Animal Science honors student and a little dog named ‘Riley’ to answer this question. A pet care curriculum was developed centering on what a dog would need to be happy, healthy, and to “feel” loved; Riley served as the ‘other being’ that the children were taught to show empathy towards. In this case, Riley was a living being who was unable to verbally convey his needs. Instead, he had to rely on the children to observe him, think and converse about him, and empathize with his situation. A goal being that the children would improve their ability to empathize generally – to migrate the knowledge and understanding gained about the dog to consideration of other living beings. Pre- and post-assessments were done with preschoolers using the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment and open-ended interview questions. Children then participated in the pet care curriculum twice a week for four weeks. Qualitative data was also recorded in the form of quotes from the children when interacting with Riley, as well as after Riley had left. The intent was to capture how they processed what they learned after the lessons with Riley. The study was designed to determine if the children had made the cognitive migration from controlled respectful interactions with an animal to empathic understating, and ultimately to humane behavior towards others.
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