CUTE: Farm animal pen pals help kids learn social-emotional skills

Published: Jul. 4, 2022 at 4:00 PM MDT
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DENVER, Colo. (KUSA) – When the pandemic took classrooms away from children, there were some consequences. It was especially tough on younger kids, who may have missed out on developing social and emotional skills.

As classrooms opened back up, a psychologist in Colorado saw the need and wanted to help in that area.

Dr. Jessica Pfeiffer said the pandemic has impacted young students’ social interactions.

“When COVID hit, there were so many changes moving to that remote learning and it was a space that the kids could share, ‘Hey, I miss being with my friends. I miss routines.’”

Pfieffer said they missed developmental opportunities.

“We created Barn Buddies, which is a pen pal program that students get to write to the animals about life and the animals read the letters and write back,” she said.

They write to the pigs, the goats, and the alpacas.

The barn buddies all respond with the help of Natalie Hittmeier.

She told the children that she feels like she can understand what the animals are saying.

“I don’t want to be the spoiler of bad news, but the animals actually cannot write,” Pfeiffer said.

Hittmeier said she doesn’t speak for the animals, she interprets for them.

“They whisper in my ear. I listen and I write it down and I send it back,” she said.

Hittmeier is a social worker, working on kids’ mental health.

“No one’s trying to fool the kids. It’s, for us, coming from that social-emotional perspective, how we are able to create this safe space so that the kids can communicate about everything that they’re feeling,” Hittmeier said. “Your animal isn’t going to say something mean to you like your friend might if they’re not thinking.”

Hittmeier said the animals will bring up an issue that they’re having with one of their friends.

“Say one of their friends is being mean to them and they don’t know what to do, and so they’ll ask the kids for help and guidance on what to do in those situations,” Hittmeier said.

Chloe James is a first-grader happy to offer advice to her friends on the farm.

“They wanted to know questions about, like, how they could interact with their feelings,” she said.

Like the other children, Chloe was happy to finally meet her penpal.

“More than ever right now, we need avenues for our students to connect, not just with humans, but with animals,” Pfeiffer said.

Pfeiffer said the farm visit teaches children about non-threatening behavior.

“I think there’s something very holistic about being in a relationship with an animal,” she said.

The Barn Buddies program works with schools to teach children through a neurobiological lens, not just an academic one.

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