It is not usually until the age of seven onwards that pressure is put on parents to provide a dog or cat. At this age some children desperately need an animal to be their undemanding friend, slave andmate and being a pet-owner becomes part of their personality. Other children may never show any real desire for this although they make half-hearted attempts at persuasion because their friends have a family pet.
For under-sevens the need is for some small animal which is not too fragile or demanding but is interesting to watch and gives young children some experience of the animal world. The children can help look after animals but cannot take responsibility for them. The hard line’ It is your animal and you must take care of it’ is doomed to failure. Children learn to look after animals from watching adults and the mother who refuses to feed the guinea-pig on the grounds that it is not her animal is teaching the lesson that animals may, in some circumstances, be left without food and water. Choice of suitable animals is therefore very much a personal matter for mother or nursery-group staff.
Dogs need a certain amount of space, time and exercising and some mess is inevitable. Fouled gardens can be a nuisance where there are childrening. Training of children and animals takes patience and a harassed mother may find a combination of both just too much to cope with. Cats are rather easier but may object to being handled by small children.
Less trouble are those animals which prefer to live in an enclosed space so that contact between the children and the pets can be controlled. Rabbits and guinea-pigs can be kept outdoors all the year round if suitable shelter is provided. A strong hutch inside a run means that children can see what is going on without interfering too much and the animals, while comfortably free to run about, are safe from cats. Guinea-pigs are rather more expensive to buy than rabbits, but they make very gentle pets and their babies can be handled very soon after birth unlike those of rabbits. Food for these animals must be kept carefully in covered bins or rats tend to find it and become a great nuisance.
Indoor pets such as mice, hamsters and gerbils are easy to keep and interesting to watch but are not as satisfactory to handle as guinea-pigs. For nursery groups their great advantage is that they can be left unattended over weekends if sufficient food and water is put in their cage. Caged birds are not approved by everyone but they do give a great deal of pleasure to young children and since presumably they have never known anything else except a cage they do not suffer as much as some other animals kept in confined conditions. An aquarium may also be attractive to children. Whatever pet is chosen it is wise to check carefully in one of the excellent books kept by petshops on the care of domestic pets and animals. Apart from any other consideration sick pets are not suitable to have around young children.
Where pets of any kind are not possible, children will have to rely on attracting what birds and animals there are. Scattering food on the ground is not a good idea as this may bring rats as well as birds. Bird trays and boxes are useful. Coconuts, lumps of fat on a string, bags of nuts or bird porridge are suitable food which can be kept out of the way of rats and enables birds to keep out of the reach of cats. Bird porridge is a mixture of crumbs, nuts, cereals and dried fruit mixed with warm dripping to bind the various ingredients together. It can be put on a bird tray, spread on tree branches or even put on a window sill to attract birds. It is important that small children attracted to a window to watch feeding birds are not able to fall out.
Where nursery groups are not able to have their own animals perhaps one or two could be imported in turn for the length of a play session. Even where the group does have one or two animals this is a good way of extending provision. A two-way system in the other direction might allow for children to take home the nursery pet for a weekend or holiday period. This might be as much animal care as children need and mothers can cope with and is much better than nothing.
In most areas there are stray cats and dogs somewhere about. Children have to be warned that not all strange animals like to be touched and that only familiar ones should be handled. Other, less hazardous natural life can be found almost everywhere in the form of worms, snails, moth larvae, insects, water animals in watercress and frog spawn from ponds. It is important that the setting free or putting back aspect of having such interesting things’ to keep for a little while’ is stressed. This is often ignored which is very bad training. The expedition to the pond to put back the tadpoles or baby frogs should be just as much fun as fishing out the frog spawn was. The other point to watch is that while window sills may be the safest place for jars containing live specimens it may not be the best place for the specimens themselves in warm weather. We also have to explain the reason we use lids with holes or muslin; so often we forget to tell the children we do this.
Every adult knows that their own genuine dislike, even fear, of some insects and creepie-crawlies should not be passed on to children. Where necessary a good ploy is to say that hands can be uncomfortably warm and perhaps this bit of paper or that tray would be better to put the new-found treasure on. Shared adult interest and suggestion often extends and adds point to what the children notice. We once had a fascinating half-hour in a playgroup watching an escaped ladybird crawling around a wall and following its path with a chalk mark. It involved standing on chairs, lying on the floor, moving out some of the furniture and a lot of searching when it flew to another spot – all highly enjoyable. A piece of string used to measure how far it ‘walked’ and a discussion on the pattern it made completed the game. The children were too young to follow up relative size and distance or time and distance as older children might have done and it would have been a mistake to try to push it any further.