I have very fond memories of spending hours in our small sunny back garden as a child. Often the imaginative games would involve digging patches of dirt, playing hide and seek with my younger brother, pushing an aged cat around in an old pram or attempting to teach our stubborn little terrier to fetch.
It's incredible how those animals formed an integral part of my childhood theatre, and that they were not only very much a part of the action, but they were also key protagonists.
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 dogs and help take care of our ten hens. They've even been known to hastily fashion Chicken Olympics courses out of hula hoops, bamboo canes and planks of wood.
So what are the benefits of owning a pet for your child?
A careful chosen pet, whose personality meets the needs of your family, can work wonders on all members of the unit. Your child's behaviours and fears must be taken into account, as must any allergies, how often you are away from home and where you live of course. But once you have chosen the right pet for your environment you might expect to see the following powerful benefits:
1 Physical Improvements
Activities such as going out of doors to walk a dog can help you get plenty of fresh air and keep fit, whilst pastimes such as horse-riding can help strengthen muscles in those with low muscle tone, and improve co-ordination in children.
2 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. An animal also brings the whole family together as you watch them settle into their surroundings. It can be a bonding process for everyone.
3 Educational Tool
Did you know that pets can be used to help children with their school work? Odd as it sounds, even reluctant readers are often willing to read to their pet hamster if they think the furry audience is listening. It can also provide a cognitive boost when children work out games for their pets, or try to train them.
4 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 after all. Give children supervised chores such as feeding the pet at regular times to make them feel grown up.
5 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.
6 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. Animals can give confidence and encouragement in others ways too. Dolphins have been known to tempt reluctant swimmers into the water, boosting them to swim.
7 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. Pets 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 confide everything to you pet too.
8 Aid to Communication
Animals have an instinctive way of understanding children even without verbal communication. They in turn communicate their own needs for food, walks, to be stroked, to be left alone or to sleep very cleverly and children 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.
9 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 hamster cage are important life skills.
10 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 hectic lives don't we.
You can read more about our family's pet adventures on our blog Downs Side Up.