Green Chimneys: Building Empathy in Our Children

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October 20, 2015


What do cardboard boxes, string, and hay have to do with fostering empathy in the children with special needs? It may seem so simple, but its implications can be profound – for Green Chimneys children and animals alike.

Animal welfare is at the core of the Green Chimneys mission and one of our guidelines is that the animals benefit as much from their interactions with people as the children do. At the farm, animal enrichment helps the animals stay happy and content, and engaged in their work with children.

The children take part in this as a way to learn about animal species, become good caretakers, and ultimately, develop empathy toward other living beings. Projects provide a perfect blend of hands-on learning and therapeutic activity by helping children make the connection between the natural needs of the animal and how to help the animal be happier, as they hope to be themselves.

One recent project was to build toys and houses for the rabbits at the farm. Before construction, farm intern May and 14-year-old Caleb discussed what they knew about the animal. In class, Caleb learned that rabbits need to chew to keep their teeth healthy and prevent them from growing too long; get their exercise by hopping onto different levels of ground; seek high levels to give them a vantage point for viewing predators; and like to burrow in tunnels to stay safely hidden. May assisted Caleb in some online research and planning as he considered materials and structural designs that would make a comfortable, appropriate environment for the rabbits.

Together they built a “castle” using cardboard boxes and paper towel rolls. The structure includes multiple rooms (hiding spaces) with different-sized doors – some smaller so the rabbits can chew their way in – a drawbridge (entry ramp), and a flat roof for the rabbits to hop on top. Caleb led the design with guidance from May, marking where he wanted the cardboard cut, and May made all the cuts with the sharp knife. They then pieced it all together.

While seemingly an educational project, the planning and creation of this custom-designed habitat is really an exercise in building empathy. The goal is to help the student create an enjoyable, positive experience for another being, based on what they know about them. In some common mental health diagnoses – particularly Autism Spectrum Disorder – children typically lack the ability to anticipate or recognize a person’s reactions or point of view. Developing this ability can eventually help him/her have more successful interactions with people, from peers and teachers to their own family members.

“Rabbits are small, soft and immediately responsive to their surroundings,” points out May. “It’s easier for a child to feel comfortable or even protective, that they want to take care of the animal.” Animal interaction activities such as this are also a “point of entry” for Green Chimneys clinicians, who often employ the animals to illustrate a potential human interaction by saying “What would the rabbit do if you took this particular action?”

This thought process is part of how our social workers help the children see that their behaviors directly impact the relationships in their lives. Caleb’s social worker Jess explains, “The animals offer a way to draw parallels and begin sharing thoughts about personal relationships. Talking about an animal’s reaction or how they might be feeling is safer emotionally and mentally than that of family or friends.”

From a distance, activities like making a home for bunnies or piñatas for chickens can seem like arts & crafts; cleaning a stall and harvesting vegetables, like chores. But a closer look reveals the therapeutic elements that are at work each day for Green Chimneys children. These experiences provide opportunities for students to enhance communications skills, boost executive function and even help them imagine themselves in someone else’s “paws.” Possessing that mindfulness, and empathy, is what will help students like Caleb keep moving in a positive direction now, and in the years to come.

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