I have very fond memories of spending hours in our small sunny back garden as a child. Often the games would involved digging patches of dirt, playing hide and seek with my younger brother, pushing an aged cat around in a pram or teaching our little terrier to fetch. It's incredible how those animals formed an integral part of my childhood memories, and that they were very much a part of the fun.
Tomorrow, Saturday the 21st March is World Down Syndrome Day, a time to post information and research, to support one another and share our stories around the world as well as fundraising. This year's focus is on health and wellbeing, on the activities those with Down's syndrome enjoy to keep active. You can read more about how to get involved over on my blog Downs Side Up.
I got to thinking about the activities that our girls enjoy together and, swimming aside, many of them are centred around animals. They both adore their weekly horse-riding lesson at a local stables, spend hours playing with our two Chihuahua dogs and help take care of our ten hens who have even been known to have Chicken Olympics courses set up for them.
So what are the benefits of owning a pet when your child has SEND?
A careful chosen pet whose personality meets the needs of your family can work wonders. Your child's behaviours and fear must be taken into account, as do any allergies.
- Physical Improvements Activities such as going out of doors to walk a dog can help you get plenty of fresh air, and pastimes such as horse-riding can help strengthen muscles in those with low muscle tone, and improve co-ordination.
- Calming Qualities A wise and gentle pet can calm and relax us all. A cat, or even a guinea pig on a child's lap brings de-stressing benefits as they stroke the soft fur.
- Educational Tool Pets can be used to help children with their school work. Even reluctant readers are often willing to read to their pet hamster if they think they are listening. Natty loves to show her numbers to her puppy Tim, with an enormous sense of pride that a silent furry audience brings. It can also be a cognitive boost when children work out games for their pets, or try to train them.
- Teaches Responsibility Owning any animal is a big responsibility for the whole family and children can learn a lot about what the animal's needs are. They rely on us for everything.
- Promotes Empathy Being respectful and gentle to animals is a very important lesson for even the youngest of children to learn. Owning a pet teaches children very quickly that pulling fur or tails will not be tolerated.
- Boosts Confidence As children develop a successful relationship with a pet and learn to look after them, you can see them develop and gain confidence. Getting a puppy for Natty was very valuable in that she was no longer the baby of the family. There was someone smaller who needed guidance and support and she felt so grown up in being the one to do that. Animals can give confidence and encouragement in others ways too. Dolphins have been known to tempt reluctant swimmers into the water, boosting them to learn to swim.
- Provides Companionship Anyone who has ever owned a much-loved pet will understand the strength of the bond and the friendship that grows between owner and animal. Animals do not judge and are happy to spend hours near a bed with a poorly child when perhaps they are unable to get out and meet friends. You can tell your pet everything after all.
- Aids Communication Animals have an instinctive way of understanding children even without verbal communication. They too communicate their needs for food, walks, to be stroked, to be left alone or to sleep very cleverly and children with SEND will enjoy having these 'conversations' with their pets. Animals can also be used to help children open up about their problems, and more and more therapists are using non-threatening pets for therapy.
- Life Skills Learning to complete tasks such as cleaning a chicken house, collecting eggs, feeding a cat, brushing a pony, putting water down for a dog, washing bedding or cleaning a cage are important life skills.
- It's Fun! About as much fun as you can throw a rubbery stick at! Well, if you chose a dog that is... and having fun and laughing is what it's all about. We all need a bit more of that in our lives don't we.
If you think animals might be able to play a therapeutic role in your child's life, the following organisations might be able to give you some ideas and guidance:
- Pets As Therapy take animals into hospitals and care situations to soothe patients.
- Assistance Dogs can be use by those who are visually or hearing impaired, or those who need assistance with daily tasks or with medication.
- Riding for the Disabled have branches all around the UK offering lessons for children with disabilities.
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