You may have seen news clips or online photos of children reading to animals. Many libraries across the nation have implemented a “Read to the Dog” program, in which children and therapy dogs spend time together at the library, with the children reading to the dogs. But, did you know there are also programs in animal shelters in which children read to the shelter’s residents, cats or dogs? These programs have multiple benefits: helping children improve their reading skills, helping socialize shelter pets, and developing stronger human-animal bonds for both pets and people.
The Animal Rescue League of Berks County in Pennsylvania started a Book Buddies program in 2013. Through this endeavor, children in grades 1 through 8 who can read at any level can come to the shelter during regular business hours and read to the cats available for adoption. According to the organization’s website, “the program will help children improve their reading skills while also helping the shelter animals by providing socialization and human interaction. Cats find the rhythmic sound of a voice very comforting and soothing.”
Many literacy experts say children feel more relaxed and less self-conscious reading to animals than reading in front of their peers, to a teacher, or with their parents. Pets and children go together like peanut butter and jelly – mingling and mixing and enjoying one another, all the while improving kids’ reading skills and providing socialization and connection with animals.
In my state of Wyoming, the Sheridan County Library offers a Read-to-the-Dog program several days a week, and north in Montana, the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena also provides such a paw-some service. Children of different ages and reading levels can come and read to a certified therapy dog.
In Salt Lake City, Intermountain Therapy Animals offers a Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, also called R.E.A.D. This program uses already registered therapy dogs and their handlers and trains them to work as a team to improve child literacy. The human-dog teams can go into schools, be at libraries, and visit other settings to serve as reading companions for children.
My dog Mary and I have visited libraries in our area off and on for the past few years. Although we haven’t been part of a Read to the Dog program, we have conducted programs about pet adoption and rescue (my husband and I adopted Mary in 2013 from English Springer Spaniel Rescue), and I have read to children from my various books while Mary sat quietly near my audience and they petted and loved on her. I’m happy to share my sweet Mary with these little ones who hug her, pet her, and talk to her. And her wagging stub of a tail assures me she loves the attention lavished upon and by her!
March is Paws to Read Month, a reminder that children and pets share a special bond, and that implementing a library or shelter program by which children can read to animals either in school, at the library, or at the local animal shelter benefits both kids and pets. If your local library or animal shelter doesn’t have such a program, perhaps you can be the catalyst to help start one. Speak to your shelter’s director or board, speak to your children’s librarian or the library director. Tell them about some of these programs in place around the country. Be an advocate for children’s literacy, therapy animals, and shelter pets, helping benefit kids and animals simultaneously.
Be Kind to Animals Week overlaps with Children's Book Week. Kids can learn kindness to animals via reading. They also learn kindness through observation and interaction. During this special time, we can encourage children, other adults, as well as ourselves to be a bit kinder … and to read more.
There are many wonderful books available for children about animals. Within those pages, they can learn how to take care of animals as well as how pets take care of people. For a listing of great children's books about pets, visit http://dogtime.com/dog-health/general/5877-top-10-kid-friendly-pet-books and http://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Childrens-Pet/zgbs/books/2853.
“Teach the children well,” are words in a Crosby, Stills and Nash song (see a YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztVaqZajq-I). Teaching children kindness toward people and pets offers great rewards for those kids, including opportunity to do good in a community and the opportunity to make new friends. In fact, according to a research study called Kindness Counts, “When kids performed acts of kindness or took notice of the pleasant places they visited, their happiness quotient increased ... (and) … they gained an average of 1.5 friends during the month-long period” (see related article at http://www.rootsofaction.com/art-kindness-teaching-children-care/).
What are some ways we can be kind to pets and people, and how can we more greatly instill kindness in others, including children? The list of ideas is endless, but here are some suggestions:
It’s Children's Book Week, a time to celebrate children's books and children’s authors. Three of my four current published works are written for children (but adults seem to enjoy them as well!) -- I've been fortunate to visit a few classrooms recently in preparation and celebration of this special literary recognition.
As both a writer and a reader I've been influenced by many authors, most notably Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was my inspiration during my youth – I read all her “Little House” books, and I've read her works several times during my adult years as well. Since I grew up in southeastern Iowa, I related to Mrs. Wilder’s farm life, particularly in Missouri where she spent her later years. That home is located near Mansfield, MO – my maiden name is Mansfield -- combining those factors, I was thrilled when, while I was in high school, my parents took me to visit Laura's farmstead as we traveled through Missouri one summer. I visited again in 2007 when my husband and I traveled through the area on our way back to Wyoming from visiting his parents in North Carolina. Our blind dog, Sage, was with us then; the weather that December in southern Missouri was stunning, and as we walked the grounds of Rocky Ridge Farm, I reflected the impact Mrs. Wilder has had on children, youth, and adults since her first book was published in 1931 when she was 65 years old. My first book had been published earlier in 2007, and I had started visiting schools and sharing both my blind dog and the book I’d written about her. My career as an author began the year I was able to again visit my author heroine's property.
As you read my stories of long ago I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good. - Laura Ingalls Wilder
There are many great childeren's books about a wide variety of topics and in a multitude of genres, some splashed with important life lessons. I write about dogs and weave positive lessons in my stories. I also discover valuable nuggets in others' works. Some of my favorite dogs books for kids (besides my own) are A Dog's Life: The Autobiography of a Stray by Ann Martin; Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo; and The Tale of Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson. Ms. Larsen also writes historical fiction for kids – her Hattie Big Sky series is delightful! I've had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Ms. Larson, and, like Mrs. Wilder, I look up to Kirby for her accomplishments and her craft.
Though I'm not on the same level as the two women authors I most admire, I recently shared some of my stories at an event for families. We used the timing as a way to honor Moms, Kids and Dogs (for Mother's Day, Children's Book Week, and Be Kind to Animals Week). The event exposed youngsters and their families to a local author (me), someone who composes stories for them. I love sharing my writing with families in such settings, and I think it's great when authors go to libraries and schools – how I would have enjoyed meeting a real author, like Mrs. Wilder or Ms. Larson, when I was a kid!
So, this week, during Children's Book Week, expose your kids (or grandkids, nieces or nephews) to some great books – perhaps even take them to an author event. Sharing the gift of reading with children today positively impacts their future.
Happy Children's Book Week!
Children are made readers on the laps of their parents. - Emilie Buchwald, author
Gayle M. Irwin is a writer and public relations professional who volunteers with various animal rescue groups. She enjoys sharing her books and her passion for pets and the environment with others.