Embracing Animal Allies: Nurturing Nature Connection in Children

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Going bird watching is a classic outdoor learning activity. An easy lesson in local species and diversity, it plays a role in citizen science, often with a bit of maths thrown in to boot. However, wild birds (apart from our ubiquitous herring gulls) can be quite an illusive bunch, especially when they’re faced with a large bunch of effervescent small humans.

I’ve recently been on a personal journey to rekindle ‘play’ throughout my practice, in the fundamental belief it is the best way (the only way?) to fully engage small humans. We know that play is the way that children learn to interact with the world around them. Connecting children to the nature is seen as the key to positive environmental values and behaviours in adulthood.

Our role as educators is bond children with the natural world while making learning more intriguing. However, most young children already feel an playful empathy with wild and domestic animals. Their first impulse with some animals is to pick them up, hold them close, take care of them, become them, play with them. So I have started to reflect on my practice through this new playful lens. Is getting children to sit quietly and count birds really engaging for them? Is it going to create that meaningful connection? Is it joyful? Is it playful? Is it even developmentally appropriate?


My search for a more playful approach to outdoor learning led me to David Sobel. In his book ‘Children in Nature: Design Principles for Education’, Sobel believes that we risk future relationships with nature by focusing too heavily on classroom-based taxonomy of animals. He believes the goal, even through ages nine and ten, should be to foster close allegiances between children and animals. This means playing at being animals, interacting with animals, and taking care of animals.

Sobel talks about building on a child’s natural tendency to be an ‘animal ally’. He believes that children have strong feelings towards animals in the early and middle childhood and that these feelings are indicative of our evolutionary heritage, that relationships with flora and fauna are an integral part of feeling bonded to the matrix of the earth. Ultimately, we do not need to connect young children to nature, it is already intrinsic within them. We just have to ensure that we do not break that bond with a style of education that is not engaging for them.

Sobel also believes that we shouldn’t fear anthropomorphism. Projecting feelings and human characteristics onto animals can actually facilitate relationships, rather than distort them. It makes animals and people part of one larger family, with relationships and rules for sharing and taking care of each other. We can build on this in education as it is an incredible opportunity to create empathy, a feeling for other creatures that can develop into a willingness to care for other creatures.

Ultimately Sobel is calling on us to stop with the spotting, naming and counting and to inspire children on a deeper level through being and feeling, “in our environmental wars, the emphasis has been on saving species, not becoming them. If we aspire to developmentally appropriate science education, the first task is to become animals, to understand them from the inside out, before asking children to study them or save them.”

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So rather than birdwatching, for example, what could we do instead to build relationships with the natural world? We focusing on what actually appeals to children about a creature. In the case of birds – children are often mainly fascinated that birds can fly. So at Beach School, to make ourselves Animal Allies of we all built our own simple wings – build simply from cardboard and found feathers – at the end of term we had multiple seabirds taking flight around the White Cliffs.


Becoming a bird through creative play requires the child to engage with the species with empathy and with joy. The correct names and taxonomy of birds and animals are important and will come, there is more time in life for facts and figures. But if you engage with children at their developmental level of fascination, you can spark that natural empathy through feeling just like a bird.

Other ways to incorporate becoming an animal ally include:

  • Building homes and nests – either a real life home for the creature, like a bug hotel, or something where the children can imagine being the creature, like making a giant nest.
  • Opportunities for animal role play – through props like wings or masks, or through games that that involve being the animal through movement.
  • Activities that nurture the animal, like building feeders etc.

What is key is to come from a place of playful empathy. “What gets lost when we focus on facts are the initiation experiences. the moments of transcendence when the borders between the natural world and ourselves break down….John Burroughs puts it simply when he says, ‘Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.'”

You can ignite a lifelong relationship, you can help them become an animal ally. Cognitive learning will follow, naturally.

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Published by Rachel Stevens

Nature Lover. Educator. Fascinated with people, spaces and places. Lover of life.

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