Editor's Note: While I'm on vacation, I've arranged a series of guest posts from other writers who routinely cover animal behavior and cognition. Today's post, about the benefits of exposing children to animals, comes from Lauren Reid who blogs at Phylogenetic Tree Hugger. Follow her on twitter: @PygmyLoris.

Animals are awesome. Okay, I am biased - I have had an innate interest and love for animals since I was a tyke, and I currently study their behaviour and evolution. But still, hopefully you agree with me on some level.

You know who else tends to think that animals are awesome? Kids. Children, generally speaking, love animals. Just look at the things that encompass the lives of children in our society: Cartoons, fables, story books, toys, and of course Disney… All heavily rely on animals as their selling points to our youngsters.

I think we should be buying into our children’s love for animals in a slightly different way: In education. Often, when trying to teach children something, half the battle lies in gaining their interest of the subject. By using animals, you may well find that you have got over that first hurdle already. And there are lots of ways in which we can use animals in education.

The most obvious example is probably the classroom pet. Some of us may fondly remember having a classroom pet (I certainly do, our beloved rabbit Rodger in year 5…I imagine he is no longer with us. RIP Rodger). Others may not. The use of animals in education in any capacity seems to be widely varied, with little structure and few guidelines. But whether through the use of classroom pets, specially-trained visiting animals, or even just through discussion about wildlife and field trips to zoos, parks, or simply out into the playground, kids can see animals in their natural habitat. I think any and all of these can offer a huge benefit to children’s social and emotional development.

Not a huge amount of research has been done looking at the use of animals in the classroom, or indeed of the human-animal bond in general. However, what little findings there are in the literature are very promising. For example, a study published just last year found that preschool children performed better in a memory task when they were accompanied by a friendly dog, than when they were accompanied by a human. Other research has found that school children with developmental disabilities engaged in significantly more positive social interactions with each other and their teacher when a well-trained dog was present in their classroom.

Another paper concludes that the presence of a dog in a classroom can positively stimulate social cohesion between pupils, and between the pupils and their teacher. My own current research finds that preschool children are more likely to share their stickers (valuable booty to a three year old) with a real, live dog than a robot dog or stuffed toy dog. All this evidence suggests that interactions with live animals could lead to an increase in positive social behaviours in general.

Animals have also been shown to decrease physiological signs of stress (i.e. lower heart rate and blood pressure) in clinical settings, for instance before a child goes for a physical examination in a hospital. The classroom can be a stressful place for some children too, and if a child shows less physiological stress and arousal, it is reasonable to assume that they will benefit more from the overall school experience.

Self-report questionnaires completed by teachers tend to report that the use of animals in schools leads to increased empathy and socio-emotional development of their pupils. This increase in empathy when animals are around fits in with the converse theory that children who abuse animals are more likely to show antisocial behaviour later in life, which is often seen as a result of a lack of empathy.

Despite the need for more research into what exactly is going on here between children and animals, it is reasonable to assume that it can potentially have a significantly positive impact on a child’s development. Although there are still many questions to answer regarding the underlying mechanisms, in the meantime, schools should take advantage of this positive effect and try to incorporate animal behaviour and welfare into the curriculum as much as possible.

By teaching a child about animals, their behaviour and their welfare, you are also teaching them some basics of biology, psychology, physiology, evolution, ecology, and important life skills like care and responsibility. Provided that any animals that are used in the classroom are well looked after, I can’t help but feel that incorporating more animal education into the classroom is a win-win situation for everyone.

Photo: Flickr/statelibraryofnsw

Related: Children and Their Pets (from Thoughtful Animal Archives)

Lauren Reid (blog, twitter) has a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, and is currently undertaking an MSc in evolution and animal behaviour at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Her primary interests include the evolution of sexual strategies, human-animal interaction, science in the media and cake. She wants to be a science communicator when she grows up so she can actually make a living out of telling people how awesome science is.