Fostering Empathy: Caring for Animals

Animals are often a favorite of young children. Animals are fascinating. And though our little ones don't realize it, observing and caring for animals is one great way to foster empathy, and teach kindness toward other living things.

The animals we encounter in our day-to-day with our little ones provide opportunities to model caring behaviors. We talk about petting the neighbor dogs gently. We put peanuts out for the squirrels in the winter months and observe how they like to eat peanuts too. We tiptoe quietly around the yard as we hunt for toads in the evening, so we don't frighten them. Through these actions, our children learn that other living things have "feelings" too.

Though it is not known if animals experience emotion the way that we do, it is true that all living things have needs, and that we as humans can help provide for this needs. By showing our children that caring for animals is important, we are also re-enforcing the lesson of kindness for all living things, humans included.

Below are some ideas for helping care for the creatures who are surviving in the outdoors during these cold winter months:

5 Caring Gestures Towards Outdoor Creatures in the Wintertime

1. Put out a small dish of fresh water, and make sure to change the water regularly. When the temperature drops below freezing, drinkable liquid water can become difficult to find. Birds that over-winter in cold climates will greatly appreciate your gesture.

2. Make bird feeders. Food can also become scarce during this time of year. Simple bird feeders are easy and fun to make with kids. Try using pine cones (Crisco can be substituted for peanut butter, ice cream cones also make great substitutes for pine cones), orange rinds, cookie cutters, or reuse empty containers. Be sure to hang your feeder above a branch that can be perched on, so the birds can easily stand and eat their fill. 

3. Pile up brush and landscaping waste. Many animals find warmth under brush and in bushes on the coldest days. By piling up sticks and brush, you are creating an escape from the cold.

4. Use sand or kitty-litter instead of salt rock, which is toxic and can harm the paws and digestive systems of the animals that walk on top of it. 

5. Put out scraps of food, such as bread crusts or vegetable rinds, such as pumpkins and squash. Yes, this is inviting creatures near your house, so do this with caution, especially if you live in a place with a healthy population of the kinds of creatures you would prefer not to invite to your yard/porch/deck as a place to find food. 

As you do these things, be sure to seize the opportunity to talk with your child about what you're doing and why. If your child is old enough, include them in brainstorming what kinds of things you can do together.