double tap picture to expand gallery
As animal welfare leaders continue to push the sheltering and rescue field into the future, finding new strategies to tackle the roots of animal homelessness and cruelty, it pays to keep in mind that kindness has roots as well.
Reaching children at early ages with messages of gentleness, empathy and compassion—for humans and other animals alike—is one of the critical means of watering those roots, shaping not only kinder citizens, but engaging future generations in the cause that’s central to so many of us. In this section, we profile some people who may be inspiring the animal advocates of the future, and hear a passionate argument for prioritizing humane education.
This summer, RedRover (the California-based animal welfare organization) took over publication of The HSUS’s Kind News, a children’s magazine that teaches kids about animals and humane ethics. It was a perfect fit: The organization’s classroom reading program, RedRover Readers—through which trained educators read to and lead discussions with children, helping to engage critical thinking and empathy—has reached over 50,000 children since its inception in 2007. In this edited interview, we talk to president and CEO Nicole Forsyth about RedRover’s ongoing commitment to humane education and how reading can help kids think about animals in new ways.
Are teachers always receptive to the concept of RedRover Readers?
We’ve had lots of success with word-of-mouth, and we found it worked best by focusing in one area—we have volunteers and programs around the country, but we’ve really focused on outreach in Sacramento. The whole Sacramento city school district is excited about us, and they’re also a school district that’s really taking social-emotional learning seriously. We find that’s a good angle for us since we focus on empathy development, and that’s one of the key parts of the social-emotional learning matrix. It’s easier for us to get their ear when we explain it as a social-emotional learning program.
There’s been a big interest in preventing bullying recently. Does that help RedRover when you’re trying to get your program into classrooms?
Bullying does get more attention, but it’s still hard to get people to see the connection. We’re finding that people don’t always know what “empathy” means and that it’s easier to talk about social skills. That’s why social-emotional learning is picking up. Even “character development” has a moral element to it that people can get turned off by. But with social-emotional learning, everyone understands that if you’re going to be successful—in a job, a career, in life, everything—you need to have good social skills and self-regulation and emotional skills. Aligning the lessons to Common Core [academic standards] is important, but it’s not enough—everybody aligns to Common Core now.
What kind of books do you use in the program?
It’s hard to find the right children’s books because we want them to show animal behavior accurately. We need to show behavior accurately so we can show what animal emotions look like, so if kids don’t know that, we can make that connection. A lot of people take for granted that they know dog language, but not everyone does, especially kids who haven’t grown up with animals. We also look for books that show a positive relationship between a human and an animal so we can facilitate talks about what makes a good friend, which teachers really like because kids have an easier time talking openly about friendship with an animal than friendship with people.
What kinds of questions do you use to explore the reading materials?
You start with a very concrete question like “Who is the main character in the story? Who is the dog on the cover?”—very top-of-the-brain, frontal lobe stuff. Then you move toward questions that get to the emotional connections of the story that get to kids’ own personal experiences, open-ended questions like “Why do you think this person left the dog outside? How do you think Buddy feels in this picture? How can you tell? How would you feel if you were in that situation?” Questions that elicit empathy, but also really elicit critical thinking. We don’t go in there and tell kids how to treat animals or what they should think. We just ask, “What do you think?” so they’re really getting into their own brains and reflecting on their own experiences. So if they’ve grown up with a family that fights dogs, they’re going to be more open to thinking about their own family’s treatment of dogs and challenge it without us even saying anything. They’re young enough that they aren’t yet too defensive about it, and to us that’s the greatest way to create change. They may have grown up with one narrative about how to treat animals; we’re giving them an alternate narrative about how you can also have this friendship with a dog.
How does the RedRover Readers program relate to the organization’s broader mission?
We are about bringing animals out of crisis, but we also want to prevent animals from being in crisis in the first place. And we have in our mission strengthening the human-animal bond. So for us, getting to kids early and helping them understand their behavior will help them develop a better relationship with animals and a stronger bond.
To learn more about RedRover Readers, sign up for training or subscribe to Kind News, visit redrover.org.