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Teaching Empathy Through Animals

Originally appears in the Fall 2015 issue

“The chickies are talking to me!” three-year-old Anya said as she keenly listened to the “pips” and “pews” of our Barred Plymouth Rock chicks on our preschool farm.  “What are they saying?” I asked, as the chicks gathered around our ankles. We were sitting on tree stumps in front of the chicken coop.  “They say, ‘Anya we love you!'” she replied with a big grin while giving herself a hug on their behalf.

In that moment, Anya reminded me of Fern, a character in the novel Charlotte’s Web[i]. In a dramatic demonstration of empathy, Fern attempts to rescue a piglet runt from an untimely death. With a sophisticated ability in perspective taking, she asks her father, “If I had been born small at birth, would you have killed me?”  Father acquiesces and Fern raises the piglet Wilbur.  When he outgrows their home, Wilbur moves to a barn where there is quite a menagerie of opinionated animals: geese, sheep, a greedy rat, and a crafty spider called Charlotte.

Every day after school Fern would visit Wilbur and the other animals and listen to their conversations. After relaying one such conversation to her mother, Mother thinks Fern is ill.  She complains to the doctor, “Fern says the animals talk to each other. Dr. Dorian, do you believe animals talk?” It is Dr. Dorian’s response that came to mind when Anya told me about the talking chicks:

It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more.

Is it a question of people talking less or listening more?  When I observe the chickens or the rabbits on our preschool farm with my young students, the children narrate for me what the animals are saying, thinking, and feeling, and the intentions behind the animals’ behaviors.  The young children seem intuitively aware.  But are they simply projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto the animals?  Are they anthropomorphizing?  In the preschool classroom we actively teach students how to recognize and name emotions.  When children break a toy, we might ask how the toy feels.  When we read a picture book, we might ask how the characters feel.  These are all steps toward building social competence in perspective taking.

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Robyn Stone is the STEM Specialist at Harker Preschool in San Jose, California.  She is also an instructor in the early childhood education department of the University of California, Santa Cruz Silicon Valley.


[i] White, E.B. (1952). Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper Collins.

[ii] Morrel, V. (2013). Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures. New York: Crown.

[iii] Kolbert, E. (2014). Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

[iv] Schumann, K., Zaki, J., and Dweck,C. (2014). Addressing the Empathy Deficit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. V. 107, No. 3, pp. 475-493.

[v] A.Cronin, Doreen.  (2003). Diary of a Worm.  New York:  Joanna Colter Books.

  1. Cronin, Doreen. (2005). Diary of a Spider. New York: Joanna Colter Books.
  2. Cronin, Doreen. (2007). Diary of a Fly. New York: Joanna Colter Books.

[vi] Daly, B. and Suggs, S. 2010). Teachers Experiences with Human Education and Animals in the Elementary Classroom. Journal of Moral Education. V. 39, No. 1, pp. 101-112.

[vii] King, S. (2015). Pets and Pedagogy. Green Teacher, Issue 105.