Dogs may be man’s best friend, but almost any two-, four-, or zero-legged creature can offer a wide variety of learning opportunities for babies and toddlers.
Research shows that kids who live in pet-owning homes understand basic biology far better than their petless peers. And studies indicate that little ones who have animal friends to turn to for emotional support are far less anxious than kids who have limited contact.
Of course, having a living, breathing animal in the house isn’t the only way to encourage social-emotional learning and cognitive development. You can achieve similar results if you read your child pet-inspired books, visit zoos or friends who have pets, and share animal-themed tunes. But remember: Even beloved pets can be unpredictable. Be sure to monitor all baby-and-animal interactions closely.
How pets make kids smarter
Animals make the best sounds and tots love to imitate them. So take a walk, drive through town, or visit a pet shop or local shelter to search for animals and watch them in action. Walk around the store and case the aisles for land, water, cage, tree, and airborne creatures. If your cutie spots something she likes, pause and say, “Gee, I wonder what kind of animal that is and what kind of sound it makes,” to get the conversation started.
If a pup barks or a kitten purrs as you stroll by, great—repeat those sounds for your critter whisperer. Ask your child, “Did you hear that kitty purr or the puppy say woof?” Around age one, babies begin picking up on short, repetitive environmental sounds like choo choo and woof, woof, so give her something to imitate. If the animal doesn’t respond, repeat those sounds yourself. Soon your baby will imitate you, connect those sounds to a form of animal communication, and link them to the correct creature in the animal kingdom.
Spend time, too, pointing out subtle, nonverbal forms of animal-to-animal or animal-to-human communication. Ask your child, “What do you think the puppy is trying to say when he wags his tail or looks at us like that? Is he happy—or hungry?” Point to a kitten in a cage and ask, “Do you think that tiny kitty curled up in the corner over here is trying to say she’s sleepy?”
How to move the needle to “Oh, I get it”
With a pet in the house, or even just a couple of stuffed animals to play with, your baby’s word bank is likely to grow exponentially. So chatter away. Your child is listening—and animals are a compelling topic. Talk about Rover’s giant paws, big teeth, cold nose, and floppy ears, or Maxie the cat’s stretchy body, sharp teeth, and long tail. Show your child that your family’s or neighbor’s pet runs, jumps, scampers, walks, leaps, eats, and sleeps just as we do. Bunnies, geckos, birds, and fish can be big, small, quick, slow, hungry, thirsty, friendly, or grouchy.
Read to your tot too. Look for books about animals, preferably ones with one image per page to simplify learning. Point to and name each animal. Then help your child count the number of toes, ears, eyes, and feet on her favorite faux teddy bear, and the number of plush toys on the shelf that holds all her stuffed animals.
Talk about each stuffed animal’s distinctive colors, and whether they match the colors of real-life animals. This will help your child boost his vocabulary and gain number sense. Studies show children who hear the greatest number of words from parents and caregivers before age three outperform friends who hear fewer words over the same period.
Animals’ fur is a sensorial delight, so help your child explore textures. Does the family rabbit or hamster have velvety soft fur behind the ears? Does your golden retriver have a thick coat and scratchy pads on the soles of his feet? Use descriptive words to describe what you and your tot are touching and feeling. If you have more than one pet, explore similarities and differences. And don’t forget to show your child that each animal has its own unique features (arms, legs, feet, beak, jaws, eyes, ears, wings, and more) that help it move about to search for food and find a place to live, just like people!