Childhoodnature Animal Relations: Section Overview

  • Tracy Young
  • Pauliina RautioEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


The “animal turn” in academia has been described by researchers like Weil (J Fem Cult Stud 21(2):1–23, 2010) as an increasing scholarly interest in the status of animals beyond that of the utilitarian or agricultural scientific study of animals and the larger-than-human degraded ecological times we are living in. The human condition has always been defined and studied in relation to the animal, from ancient to contemporary posthuman thinkers, where the study of animal relations forms a large component of this ontological turn, with shifting aspirations to decenter anthropocentric interactions and challenge human assumptions of more-than-human lives. Human-animal studies, while still firmly planted within disciplinary margins, “have been edging towards the mainstream” (Ritvo, Environ Hist 9(2):204–220, 2004, p. 205), becoming increasingly popular, respected topics of inquiry (Ritvo, Daedalus 136(4):118–122, 2007). Creative opportunities for experimentation therefore exist where new terms, becomings, and conceptualizations are underway.

The chapters in this section provoke a diversity of such (re)thinking of child-animal relations within Western families, communities, and education where the complex relationships with children, animals, and environments provide a space for ethical considerations to the social positioning of animals in education and society. The chapters address ideas, conceptualizations, and possibilities of alternative ontologies with some authors venturing into pedagogical territory that attempts to reshape pedagogy and practice. Authors grapple with the taken-for-granted interspecies relationships in their messy, complex, and multiple forms, to look beyond to see the hidden, the marginalized, the unexplained, and the ill-considered. This questioning of multiple relatings has the potential to (re)imagine new models, theories, and ways of crossing boundaries that blur the illusion of separation between children, nature, and animals, where animals can be elevated as crucial components of living together in perilous times. As section editors who engage with human-animal research, ethics of concern, and activism in our work and everyday lives, we acknowledge the “contradictory foundations” of the animal question, and this is reflected in the diverse and sometimes opposing contributions of the chapters in this section. Readers will find a choice of theoretical, educational, and sociocultural representation and discussion in these writings, and this introduction offers signposts to guide the reader through the twists and turns. The authors enhance the explosive range of human-animal studies now underway in diverse disciplines, including arts, humanities, media studies, science, and social geographies, drawing attention to the question of the animal that is under-researched and underrepresented in education. The chapters in this section of the handbook offer alternatives to humanistic thought and actions, and our hope is that these contributions will legitimize the study of human-animal relations, prompting others to join us in research and practice that embraces ethical multispecies futures.


Human-animal More-than-human Human-animal relations Child-animal relations Multispecies ethnography Animal death Interspecies education and early childhood education 


Red Peter, the fictional chimpanzee referred to in the quote above, gives a report to the academy about what he is learning through his transformation to becoming human. Kafka (1917) positions Red Peter in the short story Letter to the Academy within liminal spaces of human and animal becomings. He has a foot in both camps where being ape and becoming human means never belonging to either world. Red Peter has learned to speak, stand, and dress as a human but will always be betrayed by his animality, and this animality in turn has been disrupted leaving him stateless, world-less, and species-less as a human-animal representation that is neither human nor animal. Kafka’s story is an important fable for human-animal studies, as it characterizes the challenges of animal representation and co-species entanglements. Writing about these entanglements has become a popular aspect of human-animal studies, as scholars draw upon flat ontologies like those of philosophers Spinoza, Whitehead, Latour, Deleuze and Guattari, and Stengers. The complex variations of these worldviews offer thought-provoking ways to position (or not position) the detailed richness of the immanent world of things (human, more-than-human, objects), taking us out of our anthropocentric impasse and enabling multiple pathways to appear. The blurring and entanglement of hierarchical categories of human and more-than-human is a key feature of this handbook; however, where “the animal” is integrated within muddled hybrid terms and flattened ontologies, there is a danger that power relations can become silenced and overlooked, resorting to the privileging of human knowledge over the lived realties of other beings. After all, the fictional Red Peter who is stolen from his family in West Africa, as a young chimpanzee, robbed of his childhood, and trained through violence to perform for and as human is based on countless acts of violence, where this was (and still is) a reality (Gray, 2004). The animal turn therefore brings into question the scale of the “animal question,” as we face the perilous environmentally vulnerabilities of current earthly life. The animal turn demands our attention, to (re)learn the art of paying attention to new modes of resistance that requires “new powers of acting, feeling, imagining and thinking” (Stengers, 2015, p. 24).

In our search for alternative ecological lifeworlds, we acknowledge the importance of multispecies relationships and ecological aesthetics that attune with ethics of concern. Until recent times human-animal relations have received minimal attention from social science research, have been a blind spot in philosophy (Derrida, 2008), and have rarely focused on how children learn about and experience animals. Environmental education research has also minimized the question of the nonhuman animal (Oakley et al., 2010), failing “to integrate nonhuman animal advocacy as a serious educational issue” (Kahn & Humes, 2009, p. 179), where we know that animals matter in the lives of children (Melson, 2001; Myers, 2007; Tipper, 2011). We are grateful to the editors of this International Handbook who have chosen to privilege the study of these human-animal relations within a separate section, in recognition of this research gap. This could be seen as a point of contention. Indeed, many could argue why a separate section for animals in a handbook about how childhoodnatures co-constitute the world and why not plants, rocks, and oceans? We maintain that as we are now ensconced in the epoch of the Anthropocene where humans are described as a geological force (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000), there is a crucial need to comprehend how humans are enmeshed in cultural, political, and environmental relations with (and as) animals. The animal turn in academia has enlivened recent discussion, sparking hopeful elevation of animals as subjects with shared vulnerabilities, where previously they were relegated to the sidelines as objects of study. Human relationships with animals have always been ambivalent and ambiguous, as pests, pets, and products, where we remove, revere, exploit, and overlook them. This exclusion is a focal point of this section where the authors work in ways to question and challenge human-centric assumptions that acknowledge the importance and benefits of animals in children’s lives and children in animal lives.

Many of the chapters including Harwood, Rose, Whitty and Elliot, and Boileau and Russell from Canada; Tammi, Rautio, Leinonen, and Hohti from Finland; Myers and Russell and Fawcett from the USA; and Young and Bone from Australia adopt multispecies ethnography as a way to integrate animals into the inquiry process. Fieldwork with children and animals in education reveals shared threads of understanding and experience where human children, dogs, insects, and worms cross geographical boundaries. Animal relation ethnographic studies require sophisticated techniques and creative approaches that challenge speciesism and the epistemologies that pit the all-knowing human against the passive, dumb, and insentient animal. This is no easy task, for documented research pathways, methodology texts, and studies are still being made and unmade in these early stages of the animal turn. Finding methods and practices that embrace animality demands less-linear and less-obvious approaches, hence the popularity of affective ontologies in this research space. How do you write, for example, a methods chapter in a doctoral study with an animal as a participant? How can researchers include the perspective of a dog or the species-specific worlds of a stick insect? How can we also acclimatize to animal resistance that might be more obvious when listening to the grieving wails of a mother cow whose calf has been taken away hours after birth, but far more difficult when observing the frenetic activity of ants whose nest has been disturbed? While this section does not have the scope to answer these questions, it does provide examples of multispecies, posthuman attunement, widening the inclusive approach that ethnography offers to the study of human-animal relations:

This is because, with its ability to pay close attention to the symbolic forms, practices, objects and discourses of everyday life, it is a technique that creates a multi-dimensional picture of interactions in their subtle, nuanced and often contradictory cultural context. It does this by encouraging the researcher to engage physically, discursively and emotionally with those under investigation. In other words, it moves us from seeing research “objects” to seeing— and often working alongside—research “subjects” and places these roles as complementary rather than separate or oppositional. This lends itself to regarding humans and other animals in relations and entanglements not as so very different that they cannot be researched together. (Hamilton & Taylor, 2017, p. 9)

Roadmap of Section Chapters

This animal relations section of the handbook has been loosely designed with the intention of ordering the chapters within four parts: (1) theoretical reviews, mappings, and conceptualizations, (2) cultural constructs, (3) lived and fabricated lives, and (4) pedagogical potentialities and conceptualizations. We embrace the disorderly spillage of content and ideas that fall across chapters, for neat ideas are not part of the messy contradictions of the topic under study.

Theoretical Reviews, Mappings, and Conceptualizations

Theoretical mappings and contextual analysis assemble in the first part of this section in diverse and contradictory ways. Children and animals form common and connecting threads between distinct disciplinary methods, theoretical approaches, and familiar concepts of developmental psychology, sociology, media studies, and humane education. The concept of childhoodnature weaves through childhood development, film culture, and pedagogy attempting a renewal and awakening of these onto-epistemologies, endeavoring to embrace the various creaturely others, who are always, already there.

The opening chapter is a contribution from Gail Melson, arguably one the first scholars to address the question of what animals mean to children, resulting in the much-cited book Why the Wild Things Are (2001). In this handbook Melson’s chapter entitled “Rethinking childrens’ connections with other animals: A childhoodnature” offers an overview of child-animal relations through the domains of developmental psychology. The concluding discussion offers a helpful summary of ideas and a challenge to acknowledge animals in the lives of children through existing developmental paradigms, where they are currently overlooked. Are there possibilities, we wonder for developmental paradigms to blur the boundaries of childhoodnature by thinking through how animals experience concepts like attachment, schemas, or moral reasoning?Following Melson are two prominent scholars of Critical Animal Studies, Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart, who approach and address the question of child-animal relations as that of socializing superiority: the cultural denaturalization of children’s relations with other animals. This chapter builds on their existing research of popular culture and cultural representations of nonhuman animals, targeted to children and with the aim of socializing children into simultaneously affective and exploitative relations toward nonhuman animals. An intriguing focus of this chapter is the critical analysis of four mainstream animated movies: Zootropolis (Spencer, Howard, & Moore, 2016), The Secret Life of Pets (Meledandri, Healy, & Renaud, 2016), Finding Dory (Collins & Stanton, 2016), and The Jungle Book (Favreau & Taylor, 2016). Through discursive analysis of the movies, the authors show how exploitative relations are (still) variously reproduced and how critical awareness is needed to disrupt the cultural modelling of loving and using animals.

In the third chapter, Maria Saari presents a non-speciesist framework as the potential of humane education with the reexamining of the human-nonhuman animal relationship through humane education. She suggests that assessing the interconnected forms of social justice and oppressive systems, humane education can instigate initial moves away from dominant beliefs of society. Saari discusses how nonhuman animal issues are widely neglected in research and practices of education – even in environmental or sustainability education. She then proposes that humane education takes environmental education further, reflecting the desired curricula of interspecies education, an approach based on compassion and justice focusing on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life.

Cultural Constructs

The second part of the section engages the cultural situatedness of child-animal relations in recognition of the importance of understanding geographical and cultural contexts. Both chapters explore social, cultural, and political norms and practices through animal death, identifying death as highlighting the conceptual boundary between humans and animals in a given context.

Debra Harwood, Pam Whitty, Enid Elliot, and Sherry Rose present storied encounters between children, educators, animals and the more-than-human, as located within specific social-cultural-political contexts entitled: “The flat weasel: Children and adults experiencing death through nature-culture encounters.” This fourth chapter centers on ideologies and practices of and around animal death that occupy spaces of early childhood. The authors discuss encounters with a weasel, an owl, and a raccoon as fostering a practice of becoming witness, of being and learning together with children and animals, and of making meaning with animals and their deaths. The authors present a situated lens of co-mattering in relieving the tensions of childhoodnature–animal-matter relations.

Experiences of animal death in childhood memories are the topic of the fifth chapter by Nora Schuurman. Scrutinizing memories of animal death in childhood, based on narratives on human-pet relations, Schuurman pays special attention to the ways in which cultural conceptions, norms, and practices define the appropriate ways of relating to and grieving the death of an animal. Animal death is frequently contextualized in the experiences of growing up, and both children and adults are reflected on in the narratives. Schuurman finds that special meanings involved in relationships with animals in childhood are epitomized in the experiences of animal death. The historical perspective accessible through the data analyzed for this chapter allows Schuurman to present a long-term overview: the memories analyzed illustrate the position of animals as friends and family members already in agrarian times, before pet-keeping became a central part of home and family.

Lived and Fabricated Lives

A pedagogisized mass incarceration of certain animal species is what the third part of this section provocatively brings to the fore. The case of earthworms dangling in tweezers and being washed “clean” for inspection, or the case of “creepy crawlies” or insects being crushed to death when children learn to take care of them. Keeping and caring for other animals for the sake of human education – even worms or insects – is questioned, and grounding questions remain. What is, in fact, being taught? Who is, in fact, a subject of concern, requiring care, as a subject of their own life?

Tuure Tammi, Pauliina Rautio, Riitta-Marja Leinonen, and Riikka Hohti are the authors of the sixth chapter, “Unearthing Withlings: Negotiating everyday life child-animal relations in an early education context,” in which children and the nonhuman animals that cohabit a kindergarten yard are conceptualized as “withlings” and the processes they engage in as “withling” (verb). Focusing on one event in which children unearth, carry, and inspect earthworms, the authors discuss how different versions of human (child) and animal (earthworm) emerge, or, indeed, don’t emerge, as part of practices including participation of different technologies (such as tweezers). While the worm rally made possible the meaningful participation of pupils in the practice of science education and evoked emotions on this regard, it seemed to suppress the compassionate affectivity in human-nonhuman bodily encounters and end up lethal for the particular worm withlings. The burning question remains for educational professionals: “What is being taught when nonhuman animals are removed from their assemblages and relocated within new ones?”

As if continuing where the previous chapter left off, the seventh chapter by Elizabeth Y.S. Boileau and Constance Russell discusses the pedagogical and ethical implications of various ways of encountering and using insects in education. In learning with and from creepy crawlies, Early childhood interspecies education for human and insect flourishing, they raise the question of who benefits and who is cared for – as a subject of their own life. The discussion of insect-human relations – which are often also unpleasant and troublesome – evokes powerfully what being ethical really is. The authors present a comprehensive review of research on insect-human relations, also with children, and point out that children receive ambiguous and conflicting messages of what “appropriate” or ethical relationships with insects might be like. And so, a particularly valuable contribution of the chapter is the portrayal of the role educators can play in helping children (re)interpret their experiences with insects.

Pedagogical Potentialities and Conceptualizations

Education in the broadest sense of the word can be defied as encompassing complex, dynamic ways that human beings live, work, consume, play, feel, construct, and share knowledge and learn to be in the world (Rowe, 2012). The following chapters in this section highlight the promise and potential of interspecies exchange and the mutual provocation of learning to live together. The authors have been compelled to think with praxis, exploring pedagogies, educational activities, and the role of the teacher.

Joshua Russell and Leesa Fawcett ponder conviviality – the shared joys, pleasure, and problems of multispecies living in the eight chapter of the section: “On Child/Animal vulnerability and an embodied pedagogy of conviviality.” Highlighting bodily experiences of child-animal relations, they proceed to decenter the anthropocentric visions of individual development and to build a pedagogical vision of conviviality. The authors review pioneering research by Gene Myers, especially focusing on children’s “theory of mind” and their experiences of intersubjectivity. They argue that children often recognize vulnerability in their relationships with animals and that a shift in developmental focus on child-animal relationships, one that takes animal agency and children’s animality as a starting point, is due.

Chapter nine with the intriguing title, “I don’t know what’s gotten into me, but I’m guessing it’s snake germs: Becoming beasts in the early years classroom,” outlines how Casey Myers follows children’s animal play in an early years classroom by collapsing the human/nonhuman animal binary through attunement to animals. She maintains a loyal viewpoint of how the children themselves articulate the material-discursive particulars of becoming (with) animals within everyday acts of classroom living. This leads her to discuss the (im)proper animals – the beings between the adult-sanctioned animal presences and the children themselves, kinds of more-than-human beasts. Myers presents four cartographies of these beasts, complex, real-life events for young children, and suggests that they might allow us to consider alternatives to the traditional roles allocated for animals within early years education.

Tracy Young and Jane Bone complete the final chapter in the animal relations section of the handbook with “Troubling intersections of childhood/animal/education: narratives of love, life and death.” They adopt a critical posthuman stance to mobilize attention toward the detrimental effects of violence concerning animals that takes place during childhood and within early childhood education settings that is not conducive to the shared lifeworlds required for ecological futures. They share this chapter with Kosi, a “pedadog” who helps them contemplate a framework of “roaming pedagogies” offering possibilities for teaching and learning about, for, and with these vital human-animal relationships. The oppression and commodification of animal species in early childhood compels them to not just to (re)imagine common worlds pedagogy or to rethink the basic tenets of their interactions but to take steps to (re)imagine relational ecologies of education by (re)making ways of living together with ecological justice in both thought and action.


Casey Myers poses a question in her chapter that sums up a key part of this section of the handbook. “Does the notion of ‘child-animal relations’ itself need rethinking, as the beasts that emerged through these research assemblages suggest a hybridity that overruns the stable categories of ‘child’ and ‘animal’?” By beasts she is referring to how the children in her research named a process of becoming-animal (but not quite, and much more) consisting of physical transformations, environmental limitations, adult expectations, material affordances, and children’s conceptions of and relationships to various animal actors. There is much to unpack in what is meant and actually researched under “child-animal relations,” and many chapters in this section engage in this conceptual and onto-epistemological groundwork.

The work compiled in this collection steers clear of the simple conception of child as the savior of animal and steward of nature, with the framing of childhood as the pivotal time to set their paths straight – for two reasons well accounted for: firstly, not to colonize and reduce the lived lives of younger people into stages and phases engineered and defined by those beyond it and, secondly, in realization that ethical acts and a more just world for all animals are always issues including but essentially beyond the individual requiring complex conglomerates of social, cultural, political, historical, material (and more) interdependencies. Having said this, however, does not release humans of any age, of the responsibility to act with concern in mind and try to “acknowledge what may not be possible to say” (Weil, 2010, p. 4). In this summary of the animal relations section, we report like Red Peter to the academy about our collaborative foray into childhoodnature with animals as our thinking, acting and living companions. We question how we can honor these companions in ways that do not distort or appropriate animal lifeworlds. Our shared aspiration is “to the best of our imperfect and partial knowledge to enhance the lives of all animals, ourselves included” (Weil, 2010, p. 20).


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Swinbourne UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of EducationUniversity of OuluOuluFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Pauliina Rautio
    • 1
  • Tracy Young
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of OuluOuluFinland
  2. 2.Swinbourne UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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