JOURNAL ISSUE 14
Doing Social Work on a Farm:
An Introduction to the Practical Experiences of the Farm Project and to Some of the Theoretical Frameworks Applied
Bemidji State University Graduate
Practicing Social Work in Germany
This paper will investigate the benefits children and youths who have been exposed to violence in the family can gain from being in contact with animals and from being out in nature. More specifically, it will give an introduction to the work of the so-called "Farm Project,"1 which was established in 2003 and ran until the end of 2005. In addition, it will explore some of the theoretical work that can lay the foundation for doing this kind of practical work in the future.
"Animals manage to touch us deeply in our soul. That is a decisive moment for our work with them."2
- Introduction to the Institution: Westfälisches Kinderdorf NIEDERSACHSEN e.V.
In 2003, a colleague of mine and I decided to start a project within the organization "Westfälisches Kinderdorf e.V. NIEDERSACHSEN." This organization is a non-governmental, non-church institution that offers children and youths a home. These youths have either been taken out of their real families because of steady and heavy occurrences of violence (sexual, physical, or psychological) and/or neglect or, in fewer cases, because parents themselves have asked for help with their children due to difficulties in dealing with them. At the time during which we worked with it, the village3 was providing a home to about 75 children.
The youths live in either group homes of five children or in families of six. In the group homes, they are being raised by licensed pedagogues: either "Erzieher" (educators) or "Heilpädagogen" (remedial teachers). In the families, at least one of the parents is educated as a pedagogue; the other can have any other kind of profession.
Most of the youths attend a school for children with special needs (developmental obstructions) where they get special support, because many of them are mentally disabled or have problems fitting into "normal"4 schools; otherwise, they have a "normal" everyday schedule, like any other child or youth does. The difference between these kids and other youths is that these have a very difficult personal history, often resulting in behavioural problems.
- Introduction to the Farm Project Team: Why Did We Decide to Do This Kind of Work?
At the time we were deciding to initiate this project, my colleague and I were both working in the village, my colleague full-time as an educator and I part-time while studying to become a social worker. We had known the children and youths for 2 ½ years and had established good contact with all of them. We both grew up on a farm and thus had the personal background of being around animals and handling them as well as working in the field and following natural processes throughout the year. We were both quite convinced of the idea that being on a farm could be helpful to these youths and children. Our first idea was to simply take them with us and see what happened. We decided to start by offering project work within a set time-period; e.g., during strawberry season, we would pick strawberries with them and then make jam or bake a cake. Or we would take them on the farm when a calf was born, also doing all the things that are necessary in caring for cows, i.e. feeding, heeding, taking out the droppings, etc.
1"Bauernhofprojekt" is the formal name.
2Practitioner speaking during the seminar in 2005: "Tiere als pädagogische und therapeutische Helfer" ("Animals as pedagogical and therapeutic assistants").
3I will refer to the Westfälisches Kinderdorf e.V. NIEDERSACHSEN as the village.
4I am fully aware of the problematic use of terms like "normal," "disorder," "disruption," etc. and that they are reflective of societal rules that are in place. I will use them nevertheless to "fit into" the acknowledged exchange about the matter.
After a while, we noticed that the interest of the children and youths in the farming activities and in the contact with the animals was immense. So, we extended the activities. We began to do gardening, took care of the animals in regular intervals, built a small hut for horse equipment, and so on and so forth. The project work changed into something that we had not foreseen. The children and youths found "their" place and "their" particular task on the farm. One person was especially interested in the blind pony, Maxi, another took care of the dog, and again another was working a lot in the kitchen. With the time, we began to work more structured and started to focus on strengthening interaction skills, the ability to take responsibility, and building trust. I will talk more specifically about this later on. We worked with them about 2-3 times a month, although they would have liked to go there at least once a week. The animals we tended to were dogs, horses, cows, calves, bulls, and pigs.
- A Few Preliminary Remarks: Precaution!
I wish to point out something beforehand: I do not think that working with animals and in nature will work for everyone! It can be a very good and helpful way to work with clients if the client is interested in this kind of environment and if the person who works with them professionally is sensitive towards his or her client's and his or her animals' needs. The professional should not only know about the client's background, but he should know what he or she is doing when taking an animal into the working process. If someone does not know what he or she is doing, this can be quite counterproductive and even worsen the situation.
Secondly, my colleague and I were at the beginning of our professional experiences with working with animals and in nature. My colleague is certified to do animal-assisted therapy with horses. I was just learning how to involve work out in nature with working with youths and children, mostly following my gut-feeling. So, I am not standing before you as someone who is well-established in this field of work. Instead, in this lecture, you can witness how we learned from this project and what questions have arisen and have yet to be answered. When I say that we were "working" with the children and the youths and the animals, I am not claiming to be doing "animal-assisted therapy." We would need to be educated for that kind of work in order to do it. In our experience, we saw that this kind of work with animals and youths is helpful, and it supported us in continuing it.
- The Target Group
In the following, I will give an overview of the behavioural disruptions we were dealing with in the target group, marking in bold letters the behaviour that we mainly focused on while working with the children at the farm. The following list is not to be understood as exhaustive. It is also important to note that not all the children and youths have undergone a clinical diagnosis. In these cases, resulting from long-term observation and exchanges with the responsible educators and/or remedial teachers in the families and group homes, we referred different diagnoses to them. As a standardized international reference we applied either the DSM-IV5 (APA) or the ICD-106 (WHO). Most importantly, I want to point out that we did not treat the children and youths as "diagnosed cases to be healed," but as human beings. I am only referring to the diagnoses to give and get an understanding that can be mutually shared. Aside from that, in order to establish this kind of work with them and to get funding by the state of by health insurance, you need to have diagnoses and helping procedures that will address these diagnoses.
4.1. AD/HD (ICD-10: F90)
- Begins early on, within the first five years of age.
- Lack of endurance for an activity that requires cognitive processes, with a tendency to jump from one task to another without managing to finish a task.
- Children affected by AD/HD are often careless and impulsive. They have a tendency to be involved in accidents. They get punished/sanctioned a lot, because their behaviour is considered to be on purpose, instead of being a consequence of carelessness resulting from their impulsive and little-regulated behaviour.
- Their relationships to adults are underwritten by a disturbed sense of distance. There is also a lack of normal caution and restraint (they approach another without thinking twice). Inability to set and respect boundaries.
- They are not popular with other children and are often isolated.
- Cognitive functions are often limited/restricted; specific obstructions of the motor activity and speech development are also found often.
- Anti-social behaviour and low self-esteem are found alongside the other symptoms.
4.2. Disruption of Social Behaviour (DSM-IV):
- The person shows little empathy.
- The person shows little care for others, no watching out for others.
- What others want is considered dangerous and threatening to the person (deep sense of distrust)7.
- The person has no regret for what she8 has done.
- If the person shows regret, it is not sure if she does it primarily to get a milder sanction.
- The person ascribes responsibility to others for a deed she has committed and cannot see that she has done anything wrong.
- The person has very low self-esteem and tries to cover this up by appearing especially tough.
- An impairment of cognitive abilities is possible.
5Saß, H., Wittchen, H-U. & Zauder, M. (Hrsg., Dt. Bearb. u. Einf.) (1996).
6Dilling, H., Mombour, W. & Schmidt, M.H. (Hrsg.) (1993).
7Added by the author.
4.3. Disruption of Building and Maintaining Social Bonds (ICD-10 (F94.1)9
According to the ICD-10 and the DSM-IV, there is a difference between the "inhibited" and the "uninhibited" type. For our purposes here, I won't go into this distinction any further. The central criteria of this disruption are enumerated below.
Disruption of social functions:
- Relationship to social caretaker is characterized by a mixture of approaching and avoiding, resistance, opposition and support.
- Restricted interaction with peers.
- Impairment of social play.
- Auto-aggressions and aggressions towards others.
- Inadequate reaction to approaches and attempts made by others to build bonds.
- Non-selective attachment behaviour: friendly and lack of distance with just about anyone.
- Inability to set and respect boundaries.
- The same type of interaction pattern towards strangers.
- Overly cautious
- Permanently unhappy
- Emotionally unreachable
- Loss/lack of emotional reactions
- Frozen watchfulness: impassive facial appearance of the child, who carefully tracks the examiner with his eyes
8I only use "she" for the better flow of writing. This is not to exclude the male, unless otherwise pointed out.
4.4. Summary of Disruptions We Focused on in Our Work
- Lack of endurance with an on-going activity; jumping between tasks.
- Inability to set and respect one's own and another person's boundaries.
- Isolation from peers
- Low self-esteem.
- Little empathy.
- Little care for others.
- Emotionally unreachable.
- The Human-Animal Bond: Beneficial to Human Development?
Now we need to take a look at the question of whether there is anything about a) animals and b) the interaction between humans and animals that can be helpful in working with our target group. Let me put the question this way: can animals help, and if so, how?
To answer this question, I need to take you on a brief detour on which I am going to explore the theory of attachment developed by Bowlby10 and Ainsworth11. It makes sense to dive into this subject matter because many of the issues we are dealing with here circle around social bonding and attachment. So please keep in mind when going on this detour that we are doing this to lay the ground for how animals can be helpful in working with children and youths who have been exposed to various kinds of violence, i.e. physical, sexual and emotional abuse, who find it hard now to build trust, open up, and build social bonds.
5.1. Attachment Theory: Feeling at Home in this World vs. Feeling Alone and Lost
The early mother-child bond is at the core of Bowlby's and Ainsworth's research. Emotional health and the functioning of the personality are greatly related to the ability to enter into lasting relationships with other human beings and also with other living beings. I won't go into all the depths of this theory. It is very interesting and worthy of study. For our purposes here I will go into the main hypotheses and observations, those ones that I wish to bring into context of working with children and youths on the farm.
In the first year of life, a child enters into a bond with an attachment figure.12 The child sends out attachment signals, i.e. crying and screaming. This is the signal for the mother to come and take care of the child. The child seeks closeness and protection. In situations where negative emotions are felt, in situations that are threatening, new and strange, the child feels a sense of insecurity. Now the child needs to be reassured by its attachment figure. If the mother responds dependably and is there for the child, the child will learn that she can count on her attachment figure. She is secure. Nothing bad can happen. She will feel that whenever danger comes about, her attachment figure will be there and will take care of her. The result is a belief in a sort of "happy-ending" in any situation. There is trust in this world, trust in oneself, and trust in the people around her.
Ainsworth did a so-called "strange-situation test," in which children were observed playing for 20 minutes while caregivers and strangers enter and leave the room, recreating the flow of the familiar and the unfamiliar presence in most children's lives. The situation varies in stressfulness and the child's responses are observed. Children who had a trusting relationship with their attachment figure could handle the strange and changing situation much better. They never doubted that they would receive support when needed so they found it much easier to handle the separation from their attachment figure.
10Bowlby, J. (1969).
11Ainsworth, M. (1978).
12This can be the mother or the father. In early studies the focus lay on the mother, but as we know today, the importance of others can be equal.
What can be learned from the test?
In the secure attachment, the child trusts in the presence of her attachment figure. As a consequence, she can handle being separated from her, because she has the deep-seated feeling that if something bad happens, she will receive the help she needs. This way the child develops a so-called internal working model in which she has a picture of herself, her attachment figure, other people around her and her world as being safe. She can trust this world and feels at home there. Things make sense in this world. She doesn't have to doubt herself, her surroundings or the world. She can gain access to her own feelings, her thoughts and her bonding-related memories. There is no need to hide anything from herself.
As research has shown, these children have better social competences, are friendlier, more cooperative, more empathetic and more open towards others.13 Research has also shown that a healthy development of the psyche depends greatly on being able to build and have secure bonds. It also depends on one's ability to categorize and understand, to integrate and reflect upon one's own emotions. If one starts with good attachment experiences early on in life, the inter14 - and intrapersonal15 competences develop much better16.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Many of the difficulties with trust, in oneself as well as in others, are issues which our target group deals with. The red thread that runs through the lives of most of all of them is related to the problem of establishing and maintaining social bonds. Many are isolated or have relationships which are highly unstable and do not depend on mutual trust but which are underwritten by unhealthy dynamics such as exerting power and dominance over another. They have never learned how to establish and hold a relationship that is carried by mutual caring and respect for one another. They are insecure in themselves and suspicious towards others and the world in general; therefore, it is quite difficult for them to establish lasting bonds.
How to find a way out of this situation?
One way could be to work with the children and youths on their internal working model. It has to be changed from one that is characterized by insecurity and distrust to one that reflects a sense of security and trust. For this, let us assume animals can be of help. The next task is to figure out why and how animals can do this.
13Beetz, A., p.78.
14= social: the ability to regulate relationships and maintain friendships.
15= emotional: the ability to access one's own feelings, to deal with them, and to integrate them in one's actions and behaviour.
16Schwarzkopf, A., Olbrich, E., pp.256.
5.2. Animals and Human-animal Interaction: Helpful in the Healing Process?!
In the following exploration of the strengths that lie within animals and human-animal interaction, I will refer to literature pertaining to this subject matter (see list of citations) as well as to our own practical experiences.17
- Animals accept unconditionally. They do not judge anyone. As long as one does not torture/hurt and does show interest in the animal, the animal will accept a person as she is. They do not reject anyone. Being rejected is something very familiar to our target group. It feels good to not be judged for once.
One of the clients I am working with now is physically handicapped. People turn around and stare at her when we are in the city, shopping for groceries. She withdraws from people because she doesn't like to be stared at and because she fears what others might think of her. She is serious, aggressive towards others, very quiet and almost never smiles. She wants to get back to her apartment as fast as possible, get away from other people and be in her safe home. When we go to the farm, her behaviour changes rapidly and radically: upon meeting our dog and greeting the cows and calves, she starts to laugh, seeks physical contact, and is outgoing and very talkative. She loves the dog and the dog loves her. His name is Cesar and he is huge. Almost every time we are there, he nearly runs her over and licks her face. He won't leave her side unless he is told to do so. The woman is so happy around him. He doesn't stare at her, but is happy to see her and gives her the sense of being very special. She "grows" every time we are there, feeling the love the dog feels for her.
- Animals are authentic. Their behaviour and the way they communicate are not put on. They are real and easy to look through, once one has gotten to know the animal better. When they want to play they play.
When they want to rest they rest. The signals are obvious and clear. The children and youths have to accept it.
- Animals show their love and sympathy openly without wanting something for it in return.
See example above ( i.).
- Animals are empathetic and respond to the mood and emotional situation of the other. One does not have to pretend to be what one is not or pretend to feel what one does not feel. This makes it easier to integrate one's own feelings with one's deeds, supporting one's authenticity.
- Animals give comfort and attention when needed. This way, the person receives emotional support, which gives a feeling of security and dependability. Often, children say that they will first tell their animal about their problems. This has also been shown in a study done by Bachmann (1975).18
If a person is happy and feels in a good mood, the dog will approach her to play. If instead she is calm, withdrawn and sad, he will approach her gently, waiting for what comes next. The children and youths will also respond to how the animal might feel. One of the dogs on the farm, Mona, is dead now. She was an old German Shephard who was enjoying the presence of the children very much. She had been abused as a puppy, before she came to the farm. She was very disturbed then, shy, withdrawn, turning to violent outbreaks here and there. After some time, she changed, after she had understood that nothing bad would happen to her on the farm. She developed into a kind and outgoing dog. Especially the more quiet and withdrawn children asked a lot about her, relating their personal history of abuse and violence to the story of this dog. Interestingly enough, Mona was also drawn to the children who were more quiet and withdrawn.
- This emotional support is confirmed by the fact that many animals like to be touched and petted. This touching alone can sometimes be sufficient to experience the needed emotional support, also reflecting and expressing dependability: "He is there when I need comfort."
The children and youths love to pet the animals whenever possible. Physical contact is often the first way to come into contact with them. Nothing needs to be said.
- Animals give the sense of feeling secure and safe, because they are very dependable. They are clear about their own boundaries. What is hurtful to the dog today will be hurtful tomorrow. A person can understand this and direct her own behaviour accordingly. Unlike the early attachment figure who said one thing today but another tomorrow, without letting show any kind of logic behind this change in behaviour and/or words, animals are straightforward and do not change radically without any reason.
This finds expression in many ways. The children are never overly cautious when approaching the animals they already know. They are not afraid of what their response might be today, because they trust deeply that the dog will be as enthusiastic as the last time and lick their face, thanking them for coming back to the farm. There is no fear of unexpected reactions.
This dependability is also expressed by knowing what the animals like or dislike. In one situation, a girl was very loud. She is one of the more challenging children we work with. She was screaming and running back and forth, making lots of hectic movements in and around the stable. A group of children was standing close to the blind pony Maxi. She was very nervous and confused, not knowing what was going on there and why. The children knew Maxi and could grasp how uncomfortable this situation was for her. They could stop the girl and explain to her why her behaviour is bad for Maxi.
- Animals depend on human beings and need for them to care for them. The person must thus learn how to take responsibility for the animal.
This point can be related to the example just told. The children took responsibility for their behaviour and stopped it because it was bad for Maxi.
- Upon taking responsibility, children experience themselves as competent and needed beings. Thoughts like "I am important to the animal because he needs me to feed him and take care of him. The animal can depend on me!" could result from this. This can be a very important experience for them if their life is otherwise often filled with negative experiences and losses. Thus, the contact with the animal can strengthen their self-confidence.
Feeding, cleaning the stable, petting, and tending to the animals fill them with great joy and pride. They make the experience one that feels good to contribute to another's well-being! It makes them feel good about themselves. When they return to their homes, we hear them speak about all the things they have done that day.
One of the things that no one really understands is this: they love to clean the stable of droppings! Put this into relation with having to clean rooms in their homes, which they HATE, and you understand why the educators and parents do not understand this love for cleaning the stable!
- Animals set boundaries clearly. The child or youth has to recognize and accept these boundaries, or else the animal will withdraw, which is usually not what the child or youth wants. One of the central difficulties for children with behavioural disruptions is recognizing and maintaining boundaries, their own as well as others'. Looking at the interaction between human and animal, they might learn to deal with boundaries. Animals (although not all) are quite patient and not resentful. If, for example, a child has tugged a dog's tail several times, he will show clearly that he doesn't like that. But he will give the other person another chance.
Only if there is not torture involved, of course! There is no patience if there is torture involved!
- Patience and endurance are required when dealing with animals. Imposing one's own will on the animal doesn't work. It is important to be sensitive and to try to understand the animal. What I want right now might not be what the animal wants!
Let me tell another example from our work with the young girl from examples vii and viii; let us call her Nicole. During her first encounters with the dog, Nicole screamed at him when trying to get him to do something. Her tone of voice was filled with aggression, wanting to impose her will on him, because this is what works with other children and even with adults. The dog did not listen to her; he just looked at her and then turned away. We explained to Nicole what is important in speaking with the dog: kindness, firmness, but not aggressiveness! It took her a long time to work on her attitude towards him and to engage in a different kind of interaction, but she did it because she wanted to establish a relationship with the dog. This she could only do by interacting with him and by understanding what the dog needed.
These are some of the core strengths of animals and human-animal interaction that could be helpful in overcoming the behavioural disruptions the children and youths exhibit. Experiences of dependability, security, unconditional acceptance, empathy, openly shown love, and comfort are extremely important to children who have not had these experiences in their early years. Perhaps animals can serve as "role models" for attachment figures, although they cannot be a substitute for human bonding figures.19
17The reason why I do not cite particular passages when referring to the literature is that the descriptions and characteristics are very similar and can be found in all of them.
18Endenburg, N. and Baarda, B.
19Beetz, A. pp.82.
5.3. A Closer Look at Communication: A Few Things Watzlawick Has Always Wanted to Say About Animals, but Never Dared to.
Let me point to one more strength of the human-animal interaction. I put this at the end because personally I find it to be especially interesting and important: the dynamics of communication between humans and animals. I wish to look at the communication patterns in human-animal relations to see what it is specifically about communication between them that could be helpful for the development of a person who has been exposed to violence and who has shut herself off from other human beings.
How do they communicate with each other?
Humans and animals communicate with each other. Although animals cannot communicate verbally like humans do, it is nevertheless the case that humans get the feeling that the animal companion really understands. On the other hand, animals would not respond to humans if they would not pick up on the sent-out signals. They would neither relate them to themselves nor process them.
The intensity and the degree of communication that "works" seem to be strongly influenced by the kind of relationship that exists between the person and the animal. Let's take a stranger and a dog. The stranger tells the dog to go and pick up the stick and to bring it to him. Chances are good that the dog won't do it. The same command, given by the owner of the dog or by someone he knows well, he will follow readily. So, there is something that happens on the relationship level in communication processes between an animal and a human being. Let us look closer at that.
One of the axioms in Watzlawick's communication theory says:20
Human beings communicate both digitally and analogically. This distinction between digital and analogical communication can help us to make communication between a person and an animal more understandable. Digital communication means that certain words (in writing, in word, in symbols) symbolize certain content. This is based on an agreement of what meaning is supposed to be carried by words put in a certain order, which are put together in accordance with certain rules of logic and syntax.
Digital communication doesn't allow for any second-guessing. There is no double-meaning; when communicating digitally, it is very precisely said what kind of subject is supposed to be told, as can be found in instructions for putting together a shelf or as used in scientific discussions/discourse. The explanations are put very clearly so that there is no room for interpretation.
Analogical communication is about precisely this room for interpretation. The message is not clear at all. This is the core strength of communicating analogically. It can express a mood, an atmosphere, relationships through gestures, mimicry, body posture and movement, tone of voice, and expression of the eyes. Digital communication is not adequate for this.21
Another axiom relevant to this investigation says: communication has a content and a relationship aspect. The relationship aspect determines the content aspect of a message. If there is something wrong in the relationship between two people, it does not matter how nicely one person talks about the other; they will remain suspicious and draw information out of what has been said, fitting the kind of relationship they have. Example: two colleagues say something nice about another colleague of theirs; the person who stands in good relations to the colleague will have the compliment received without doubt. The other one will not.
Content with merely matter-of-fact statements cannot be communicated between a human being and an animal. When a person gives commands verbally, e.g. "Sit down!", this command has to be in accordance with nonverbal signals, i.e. facial expression, tone of voice, and body posture. Here is an example from our work:
A group of children and youths were trying to get a dog to jump into the pond. To get him to do it, they threw a stick into the water for him to bring back as an attempt to entice him to jump. This group had no real intention to play with the dog. The dog (he LOVES to play) stayed where he was, observing the group, and I am claiming to know he knew what they were up to and so he just waited, although the group ordered him again and again to jump and get the stick.
A little time later, another group came and tried the same thing. They were really interested in playing with the dog, and in no time, the dog jumped into the water and brought back the stick. They had used just about the same words for the commands, but their attitude was entirely different. Pure gestures and commands wouldn't do the trick. The dog wanted to feel that there was real interest!
What consequences does this have for communication between human beings and animals?
The "agreement" between verbal and nonverbal communication as well as the relationships and the intensity of the bond between humans and animals are decisive for how well communication works. A person cannot pretend to be interested in an animal. Analogical communication opens the way to "(co)-relatedness"22 , i.e. it refers to what is really going on between them and whether the one really understands the other. This "(co)-relatedness" is a precondition for human development.
Wholeness of communication entails digital and analogical communication. A person who is able to express various and most diverse thoughts, feelings, and processes is more likely to be one with herself than someone who ignores or excludes certain experiences inside her inner life. A person who tries to only23 communicate digitally would not allow her potential to grow fully. Her development would come to a halt. Animals demand for and ask of their counterpart to be authentic. They are focused on the analogical communication of the other. When one comes into contact with animals regularly, one needs to try to harmonize one's verbal and nonverbal communication. This is necessary in order to communicate successfully.
This leads to the following consequences for the person:
- One has to know what one wants. (Do I really want to play with the dog?) Interacting with animals could be a step towards increased self-perception.
- One has to find a way to express nonverbally what one wants. She has to reflect the way the dog views her. This also strengthens her self-perception. (Will the dog understand that I want to play with him if I keep sitting on this chair?)
- Find the right verbal signals, which will agree with the nonverbal signals. (If I say, "Come on, let's play!" in an indifferent tone of voice, the dog won't understand what I want.)
The communication patterns between humans and animals could contribute to getting in touch with oneself again, something that is extremely difficult for children and youths who have experienced violence.
Let's assume that through the interaction with animals, a new internal working model could be built, which could entail a more positive and hopeful view of this world with more dependable social bonds. The animal is a different kind of living being than a human being. Thus the child won't approach the animal with the same kind of prejudices and suspicions as with a human, shutting herself off immediately to protect herself. Instead, the child could learn another kind of interaction, initially being more open than towards another person, because it is not tied to the bad experiences she made with a person. The perfect turn of events would be if this positive interaction pattern between human and animal could eventually be taken into human-human relationships.
If this is possible has yet to be shown.
We have seen many hints that give us an idea of how and why animals could be "developmental aids." Levinson, a child psychologist24 who made use of the strengths animals offer in working with his clients, said something which to me is a nice summary of what we have been exploring, and with this I would like to close the investigation of the human-animal bond:
Pets decrease alienation by providing communication with nature - contact, comfort, and companionship. Pets may play a crucial role in a child's emotional development and abort mental illness, particularly in homes devoid of affection and emotional security. The pet may thus become the touchstone with which the child approaches himself and reality. Love for the pet creates a relationship of mutual trust and confidence while building a bridge to the future and to greater self-awareness.25
Next I shall give you an idea of the human-nature bond.
20Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H. & Jackson, D. D. (1969).
21Try sending a love message via short text message on the normal phone line and you will know what I mean.
22 = "Bezogenheit." This term expresses mutual interest, dependency, interaction, etc. I was not able find the equivalent in English.
23Not possible, of course!
24He witnessed an interaction between a dog and a boy whom he had been working with for weeks to try to get to talk. He saw that the boy was talking with the dog. This led him to look closer into interaction between humans and animals, especially focusing on the benefits for children who are emotionally disturbed, but also looking at the benefits for the healthy development of a child.
25Fine, A., Foreword, bold print added for emphasis.
- Humans and Nature: A Bond About Meeting Humans' Innermost Needs
This subject is very wide, and I will not do it justice, so please keep in mind that this short elaboration shows only an excerpt of what needs to be said about it. Being in and working with and in nature is my area of specialty. My colleague focused on working with animals.
6.1. Nebbe's argumentation and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
What I wish to do here is to talk about which deep human needs are met by being out in nature and experiencing nature. I will refer to the findings proposed by Linda Nebbe, an academician who is greatly involved in animal-assisted therapy and wildlife rehabilitation in the USA. She does research about the human-nature connection.26 Unfortunately, this area has not been worked on so much, which makes it difficult to find literature. The book Nebbe wrote is not available in Germany anymore, so my research in this area has been rather limited.
One of Nebbe's arguments for working in nature leans on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.27 28 There is a great chance to fulfil these needs by being in nature. Nebbe argues that not too long ago in human history a person's self-esteem was relying on one's ability to survive. Daily tasks circled around various duties that were assigned to secure one's "survival." People spent more time outdoors and did not withdraw into air-conditioned rooms. People aged in a normal way; no operations were done to get rid of wrinkles. The changes we have brought about and have undergone have a deep impact on how we perceive ourselves. For one's personal identity and for self-esteem today, it is very important what one looks like, what material possessions one has, and what one is able to consume.
Many of the activities we engage in are senseless or pointless. It doesn't really matter whether I do them or not; they are not important in any essential way. They are meaningless in that way. If we ask ourselves, "Why is it important to do this?", we may not have an answer to many of the things we do every day. It really makes no difference whether we do them or not. This leads to a picture of ourselves that may be characterized by being meaningless, which in turn has an impact on our self-esteem.29
In the following I will give a summary of the central needs in the hierarchy of needs. Accompanying this, I shall give examples out of our practical experiences30 to illustrate each need.
- Self-actualization: A person seeks fulfilment in what she does. She seeks to actualize her potential. This entails testing her abilities within any new situation so that she may discover what she is able to do and what not, what she does or doesn't like. Recognizing her own boundaries is essential to finding out which goals to set for herself and to then reach them.
A 13-year-old girl did not want to even touch the battery-operated screwdriver when we were building a hut for storing away the horse equipment. There were three boys who should do the "man-work" because they "would do it better anyway." At one point, when nobody was looking, she took the screwdriver and began to work with it. She noticed that she could work with it very well and that she liked it very much. Perhaps she had longed to do crafting for along time, but was always afraid to try it because she feared she would not be good at it. The potential she had in her was just waiting to be awakened.
- Aesthetics: A person needs symmetry, order and beauty.
Nature has a lot of it. Look at a plant, any flower. The leaves are in a harmonious order. Symmetry and order can be recognized in the succession of sowing and harvest. This natural order stands in contrast to the possibility of buying any kind of fruit and vegetables at any time of the year at the supermarket. Beauty can be found in every sunset, any plant or in any cloud formation, to take a few examples.
- Cognition: A person wants to understand, know and explore. To recognize the order of events and coherence in nature, cognitive processes are required.
The children and youths permanently ask questions like, "Which function does the hair on the corn cobs have? Why do moths fly into the light? What is the difference between a cow and a 'Rind'? Between a bull and an ox?" The list of questions could go on and on.
- Self-esteem: A person seeks to accomplish something, to feel competent and to receive recognition and approval by others.
It was the responsibility of one of the girls to tend the herbal patch we had laid out. When the herbs had grown, she could pick them and make butter with fresh herbs, which we were going to eat in the evening after finishing work. She was very proud of her work and received many compliments from the others. They also asked her how she made it. It was "her" butter mixed with "her" herbs. She had made it and she could feel competent in what she had done. At school she often feels that she is not able to accomplish anything, so this was an important moment of success for her!
- A Sense of Belonging and Affection: A person needs to feel like she belongs to someone, needs to be accepted, and needs to be in contact with others.
This is mostly shown through contact with animals. As we have seen earlier, animals are very open and authentic. If they like someone, they will show it, without asking for something in return. This is the case when the blind pony snorts because it enjoyed being petted or if the dog licks one of the children in the face because he enjoyed playing. Plants can also be included, though; through working on the farm, we have noticed that each child and youth has found his or her place. We all work together and do our best to care for the animals and to make sure the garden is tended. When all is done and each has contributed something, we can enjoy this feeling while sitting around the bon-fire, knowing that we all worked for the same thing.
- Sense of Being Safe: A person has to feel safe, secure and out of danger. Many people can point to at least one spot somewhere in nature when asked about a place where they get this feeling. How about you? Where is your personal place of comfort and safety?
The children and youths have sought out places for themselves where they like to go and come to rest. Some of them like to stand by the pond and look at the water and the jumping fish. Others enjoy standing by an animal to feel peaceful. Most all of them enjoy the silence when we have a bonfire, just staring into the ever-changing flames.
- Physiology: A person must fulfil her needs for food, drink, rest, and movement/exercise.
These needs can be met very well on the farm. The children move about a lot, work with their hands, feel the rain, the wind, the sun, the warmth and the cold. After working, we get together to have a meal and to rest. In the evening, they go home feeling tired and, as we are told, they sleep very well! In turn, this has an impact on their emotional state. They feel more balanced (viewed from outside; they do not say this outspokenly), are much more able to focus on particular tasks, and are more "relaxed" in dealing with the other children and youths. We all know this: when we have been inside for too long without moving about, we must go outside and get some fresh air in order to focus and think creatively again.
26Fine, A.. pp.398.
27Maslow, A.H. (1970).
28Maslow, A.H. (1973).
29Fine, A.. p.400.
- Final Remarks and Proposed Questions
I hope to have given you some insight into the potential of this kind of work, but a lot more needs to be said about this. Research is needed to study the impact of animals and nature on children and youths. There is also a great need for evaluating the already-existing projects and work. My personal wish is to continue my work in this area because it is my full passion and I am wholly convicted that it is good for both the people we work with and the people who work with them. This lecture today was supposed to waken your awareness for this kind of work, and it was an opportunity for me to organize some of the many ideas and experiences I have gathered during the project.
Now I would like to pose the following questions to you:
- Have the activities we engage in become meaningless?
- Considering the argument Linda Nebbe put forth, how do we define ourselves as a person today?
- How can we be role models within our communities in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child? Is it just a "piece of paper"? Is it time for something new? Are you satisfied with your appearance/stance in this world of violence?
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