inTuition taster: Animal instincts

The positive impacts of animals are well documented in primary school settings, but could this also be applicable to those in the further education sector? Liz Bennett MSET believes so.

We all know of someone, perhaps even ourselves, who has struggled or is currently struggling with their mental health. With mental health conditions on the rise, having a variety of things in place to improve wellbeing has never been so important.

Animals in the classroom is not a new concept, particularly with primary school-aged children. They have been shown to have positive impacts on learners of all ages, including reduced anxiety and increased resilience.

I first encountered the term ‘animal café’ at the college I work at. This is an event occurring every few months, just for an hour or two, where students (and staff, if they are available!) can relax in a quiet space with the company of animals and other like-minded individuals and chat about their day. The most popular visitors to the animal café are rabbits, guinea pigs and dogs. These animals are from the animal care unit (used for the animal care courses), and sometimes staff bring their pets as well.

Feedback from students regarding the animal café has been overwhelmingly positive, with some students saying they had been “looking forward to it all day” and others saying that they felt much calmer and less overwhelmed afterwards. Some students said they felt it was easier to talk to others when there was something else to focus on and that this helped them make new friends more easily. This suggests that it may be particularly beneficial for neurodiverse or anxious students. Research backs this up, stating that students find animals to be non-judgemental, and those with social difficulties feel able to form bonds more easily.

“The mere sight of a pet during teaching could pique engagement and noticeably reduce tension”


Another, perhaps more familiar, example of the positive effects of animals on students was during lockdown, when many students and teachers were joined by their pets for online lessons. I noticed, in my own lessons, that the presence of a pet sparked delight in students. The mere sight of a pet during teaching could pique engagement and noticeably reduce the tension and stress of students in classes covering more demanding topics.

I have found in my own practice that students often learn best when they feel more relaxed. When students are trying to learn difficult concepts in a stressful environment, this can cause mental barriers that prevent effective learning. Researchers at the University of Leeds have observed similar positive reactions of students to animals; they found that when anxious students viewed videos and images of animals, their heart rates and blood pressures dropped to within normal ranges, thereby suggesting they felt less stressed afterwards.

Since positive results were found simply from viewing images of animals, this gives a wide range of ways that we can incorporate the benefits into our teaching. For those studying subjects such as biology, geography or environmental science, a wildlife documentary may be appropriate to incorporate into a lesson or as a homework. A simple image, meme or gif could be used to spark interest or generate discussion at the start of the lesson.

Other ways of incorporating animals into learning could be arts and crafts; fun-fact trivia; discussion of the effects of relevant science, technology, engineering and maths content; and conversion of units using an animal example such as converting the weight of animal from kilograms into grams or tonnes into grams. It could even be as simple as hanging a bird feeder in the grounds or having students or staff help build an ‘insect hotel’ to encourage wildlife and look after habitats.

In conclusion, the presence of animals or pets can help learners feel more at ease and may provide an atmosphere more conducive to learning. This may be particularly true for neurodiverse learners, those with mental health difficulties and students who have suffered trauma. Furthermore, the increased wellbeing from these experiences may have positive impacts on student retention and attendance and help ease the burden on mental health resources. 


Liz Bennett MSET is a lecturer in chemistry at Halesowen College (inTuition edition: Winter 23/24)

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