How to Nurture Reading in an Emerging Reader

Reading is a wonderful thing.

“Most big ideas don’t seem like big ideas at first. So, be on the lookout for little ones that seem kind of ho-hum, let-me-floss-first kind of ideas.”

I saved this quote, but sadly not the attribution. I love it.

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Years ago, I heard about a program in Canada and the U.S. that brought young kids to read to shelter cats—a reciprocal program to serve emerging readers and emerging adoptees! It inspired me to launch a similar pilot project last spring.

The world is coming undone. Experiences of suffering and challenges to the human spirit are on the rise. It’s led me to embark on projects, initiatives, and volunteering that I can’t not do. As a co-founder of EPIC nature school in Victoria, for K–Grade 5, I knew this pilot project could benefit youth and animals in search of their fur-ever home.

I reached out to the local Victoria SPCA branch. “Can I bring kids a few times a month to read to cats?” They said, “Yes!”

At EPIC, a founding principle is to address disconnection from the self, others and the living world. It’s a significant step to reconcile some of the root causes of our climate emergency and ecological collapse. School is also a wounding place for kids. The classroom often lacks the emotional safety kids require to be at rest, free from alarm. If you’re alarmed, you cannot learn.

Getting Kids Reading

Kids are under great pressure to read by certain age, from a one size fits all formula. The pressure to read— from parents, peers and teachers—can put its unfolding on pause. The child also adds their own pressure to perform. It may explain, a genre of children’s books called “Reluctant Reader.” What an unfortunate and defeating label.

The benefits of reading to cats for the kids is they can read aloud free from correction, minus judgement from their peers, and take a break from what doesn’t work at school. Many children took this task on as their job! “I must read to this cat” one child announced. Kids 5 to 10 years old brought in board books, picture books, chapter books and novels. They also read books about cat behaviour, cat breeds and wild felines.

Kids get a cozy room with one cat and take turns meeting various cat personalities. Some are playful kittens, others quiet seniors and many required space and time to warm up. There are options to read in outdoor “catio,” a room with a couple of cats and outside of dog kennels, too. Kids also sat in or out of a bunny enclosure.

Children (and their parents) signed up because the program sounds fun and unusual. Often families had allergies in the home and couldn’t be pet owners. Children also learned about animal care—from bunnies to skinny pigs to dogs and rats—like the benefits of calm energy, how to read body language and what they eat.

Benefits to the animals were a calm, quiet presence in child form. Cats felt a friendly stroke or scratch in an unfamiliar place, a cozy lap to call their own or someone to meet their play energy! Being in the company of kids tells staff more about the animals’ personalities. This can make them more adoptable. A true opportunity for cat enrichment.

Side effects of this humble program has children connecting to more sources of energy and love to support them. They discover animals are great listeners. Kids could also be themselves and feel unconditional acceptance. A few participants became foster families or pet owners, too. Surprise!

You can also create better ways to be in this world together. Help kids see themselves as part of something bigger.

I recommend:

Reach out to your local animal shelter.

Visit the space to see what its looks and feels like.

Ask the shelter the best day and time to visit.

Take small groups of five kids.

Read to pets at home!

I arrange visits based on what works best for the shelter and when I can supervise. I always bring a variety of books, too. Parents are often eager to attend. I choose professional development days, after school or on a holiday. Invite kids from your school, neighborhood, local Girl Guides or Scouts or home learning community.

Highlights this year include seeing kittens only a few hours old, watching animals heal from an injury, celebrating adoptions and petting skinny pigs (AKA hairless Guinea Pigs)! Each visit is like opening a well-wrapped present. We never know who we’ll meet.

I am grateful for this partnership with the Victoria branch of the SPCA. Time spent in relationship with non-human kin is fundamental to human wellbeing. It’s uplifting to support kids to reach their potential with reading. You’ll witness generosity and compassion for themselves and community, too.

Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter is a writer, educator, facilitator, naturalist, creator of culture, soul activist, and mother of two. She’s the co-founder of EPIC Learning Community a forest and nature school in Victoria, B.C., Program Coordinator at Victoria Nature School and in the process of attaining her certification in Equine Facilitated Wellness.