How do children learn about animals?

Patrick, P., Byrne, J., Tunnicliffe, S. D., Asunta, T., Carvalho, G. S., Havu-Nuutinen, S., ... & Tracana, R. B. (2013). Students (ages 6, 10, and 15 years) in six countries knowledge of animals. Nordic Studies in Science Education, 9(1), 18-32.

How much do children know about animals, and where do they garner their knowledge? This study interviewed students aged 6, 10 and 15 years old to find out which animals they could name, and to discover how they gained this knowledge. The researchers also explored cultural learning differences between children from six different countries.

Schoolchildren’s awareness of animals and their environment has been a topic of consideration amongst education providers for many years, as it is thought that this will help them relate more to animals and the natural world in later life. This study was conducted to distinguish the knowledge students have of animals, and whether there was a shared knowledge between different countries. The researchers also wanted to establish whether education systems provided children with the necessary teachings for them to respect the natural world, or was it a result of media, environmental experiences, family and culture? 

The study consisted of 27 pupils aged six, ten and fifteen year old from each of the six countries (Brazil, England, Finland, Iceland, Portugal and USA). The researchers constructed an interview in which students were asked to name as many animals as they could think of in one minute. Interviewers then asked the participants where they had seen or learnt about each of the animals that had been listed, and finally asking them to name an animal that related to a prompt word provided by the interviewer (for example, ‘name a small mammal’).

Children from all countries learn through media and socio-cultural events

Results found that Portuguese students named more animals than students from any other country with a total of 550 animals named, whilst Brazil named the lowest amount with a score of 113. With regards to animal categories, English students named the highest number of exotic animals; Portuguese students named the most endemic species, all countries named a pet animal of some sort, yet farm animals were named the least.  Mammals were named more than any other scientific class of animals across all countries, followed by birds, and whilst all the countries named amphibians the least (out of the vertebrate categories). Invertebrate animals were rarely mentioned by children from any country, except Portugal. When prompted to name a species of animal, all countries continued to successfully name a mammal, though some countries were still unable to name specific animals within scientific categories (for example Brazilian students could not name a nocturnal animal).

Media (such as TV, books and internet) proved to be a popular resource for seeing and learning about animals, as did the home and ‘places of informal education’ such as zoos, aquaria, or farms. Results suggest that media is replacing personal encounters with animals significantly, and that students are far less likely to learn about and interact with animals at school. Instead, they see them at animal attractions, are taught about them by a family member, or watch them on the television. Overall, it could be recommended that more interactions and teaching about animals in school curricula could enhance children’s knowledge of animals with whom they share the world.

World Animal Protection’s view

We at World Animal Protection agree that it is important for children to be educated on animals and the natural world. Many existing human-animal conflicts are a result of a lack of education, and animals being misunderstood by humans. We believe that humane education, including a focus on animal welfare education, is essential in any well-balanced curriculum.  However, it is desirable that these initiatives are embedded within a culture of teaching, fostering and nurturing compassion and empathy amongst all students, throughout their school career.