Animals and Fear
We have been spending a lot of time this past month in Vancouver at Southlands Heritage farm. This land is a working farm that is home to many great programs and community groups, and we bring our groups here to garden, connect with the animals, and play one week per month. The farmers here also grow food and raise livestock. What's wonderful about our Wednesdays at the farm is that often we are the only external group there, particularly in the winter. Because it's a working farm, there's an accessibility to the animals that is quite special and intense. One afternoon group in particular enjoys having close encounters with the goats.
These goats are very friendly and social, and seem to really enjoy our visits. For the children it's mutual. The goats are fascinating! They seem to seek out and enjoy contact with us, and can become curious about individual children in turn. There is often an element of thrill mixed with trepidation as a child becomes the focus of one of the goats. Once we get to know the goats, their behaviour becomes more predictable - but this requires lots of visits and interactions first.
This year we have noticed a few children feeling afraid of the animals. This is understandable, since at Southlands farm the animals, including the goats, chickens and horses, are very used to people and normally do not hesitate to approach. This month we noticed that some of the chickens have learned to hang out under the picnic tables when people are there eating their lunches, hoping for some dropped crumbs or hand outs. Together we explored our feelings around close, unpredictable interactions with animals, and made a point to learn and discuss as much as we could about what the animals might be wanting or intending. Increased knowledge helps to some degree, but when that feeling of fear has been activated it can be hard to calm oneself with facts and information. Instead, we teach strategies for children to take more control of the interaction and set boundaries, for example, gently shooing away the chickens, or ignoring a horse that you do not wish to get close too in the barn.
Modelling calm, appropriate interactions with the animals can also help to ease a child's anxiety. Here Tim effortlessly models enjoyment of the goats, and the children get to see how positively the animals respond to his calm presence.
We always starts and end our day at the tire swing at the entrance to Southlands farm. The children eagerly look forward to their time here, often running from their cars through the gate to get a chance to swing before circle time. Lately we have been spending 10 or 20 minutes here as they children are happily engaged in taking turns swinging, pushing each other, and challenging themselves to run through the tire swing area without getting bonked as someone is swinging!
Though the solstice has passed, the winter days have been feeling as dark as every, especially this past week as everyone gets back to their routines after the winter holidays. In these wet and dark days, I am ever grateful for the opportunity and discipline of being outside every week with these groups, playing in all weather, expanding our experiences and becoming more resilient in the process. Happy winter everyone!