Anneliese Schools Animal Care Coordinator Janet O’Faolain talks about the important role animals can play in child development.
A New York native, Janet O’Faolain found it therapeutic being around the horses in Central Park.
She learned about therapeutic horsemanship and began volunteering in the Bronx. When she moved to California, she volunteered at The Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano.
“I was studying yoga and yoga therapy while volunteering,” she said. “I wanted to do both. In 2008, I became a therapeutic riding instructor through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (later renamed Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship or PATH).”
Fourteen years later, O’Faolain is the animal care coordinator and therapeutic riding instructor at Anneliese Schools in Laguna Beach, where she combines mindfulness with unmounted work with the miniature horses while also expanding into other species for therapeutic support. She said the benefits of children spending time with animals can include improved focus, confidence and self-worth; development of empathy; learning body language; opportunities for STEM activities and learning; development of leadership skills; and just plain joy.
“Frau Anneliese saw the value of teaching children alongside the natural world 54 years ago when she first opened her school in Laguna Beach,” said O’Faolain. “She knows how nature captures a child’s heart and imagination. I thought it made sense to take what could be an after-school enrichment and make deliberate moments of mindfulness with animals happen during the academic day as well as enrichment.”
O’Faolain recently answered some questions about equine-assisted learning (EAL) and her work with kids and animals at Anneliese Schools.
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What are the ages of children that you work with?
“Anneliese introduces the children to the miniature horses first at age 4. The school has a storytelling time with them at age 6, which continues all the way to age 12. The teaching staff, administration and I work closely to develop age-appropriate programs and volunteer opportunities. We incorporate an Early Reader program where kinder children read to the horses.”
What are the benefits?
“Children tend to value animals just for what they are, not what they can do or provide for them. The spontaneity of the encounter, the lack of control over the animal or its environment, and the unique attributes of the animal on display can make a lasting impression on a child and begin to foster a deep love of wildlife in all of its forms. The dedicated programs within Anneliese Schools facilitate academic and social interactions between their students using aviary, goats and alpacas they have on campus.”
How can animals help develop social skills in children?
“Continuous animal interaction helps children develop their social skills without the pressure of actual human interaction, and children who take care of animals are shown to have higher levels of self-esteem than children who do not, as well as emotional stability and empathy towards others. Fostering interactions between animals and children in more natural settings makes the child feel lucky to be there and increases their own awareness of themself and their surroundings, initiating the beginnings of the journey of self-realization.”
How can animals help with cognitive development?
“One-on-one interaction between a child and an animal they feel comfortable with can actually improve their language and communication skills. Children often talk to animals in order to confide feelings, be affectionate, and sometimes even give commands, all in a safe and stress-free environment. Children have also been known to read to their pets/animals, which in some cases has been proven to dramatically improve their literacy skills. This is one of the main reasons Anneliese Schools created their Mini Readers Program.”
What is one of the most noticeable effects of EAL that you have seen in an academic setting?
“Kindness is often the product of these animal-child relationships. When I see a child displaying empathy and kindness, I can point it out and remind them of their natural development. In other words, show them how easy it was to be kind. It’s then easy to practice this skill development in other areas of learning such as conflict resolution. Having the ability to solve conflicts and/or other challenges leads to a natural confidence.”
By Janet O’Faolain