Project with animals improves children’s reading

Sibu Sabisa, 7, shows a kitten the contents of his Xhosa book.

What began as voluntary project combining Ms De La Harpe’s love of children, animals and literature, has blossomed into a three-day-a-week programme known as Story Tails, which currently involves pupils from Kronendal Primary School and Imizamo Yethu, as well as visits to Kronendal Retirement Village. Dogs are sourced from the Domestic Animal Rescue Group (DARG) and taken to the various centres for 30 minute to an hour sessions.

“While dogs may not be able to read, they make fantastic listeners,””said Ms De La Harpe, a qualified primary school teacher.

“Their relaxed, non-judgmental presence creates an inviting and motivating environment that is comfortable, safe, empowering and fun. The component of the human-animal bond could specifically help to address the low self-esteem commonly seen in students struggling with reading, while providing them with the support and confidence they need to practice and improve.”

There were a number of key aims of the programme, she said, including:

* To create a joy of reading;

* To increase children’s motivation to read;

lTo increase achievement on sight word reading charts;

* To socialise children to dogs;

* A cats holiday programme allowing the socialistion of cats and dogs;

* To socialise the dogs to children/ groups of children and the public;

* To provide personalised, quality time, love and affection;

* Wearing of “Adopt Me” vests to increase adoptability; training of wearing a harness; training of car journey for Darg;

* To increase the visibility of DARG’s work and their ongoing needs;

* To increase the local children’s understanding of shelter operations;

* To increase the possibility of dog and cat adoptions into forever homes; and

* To showcase the qualities of the specific dog or cat via photos on social media

Story Tails receives support from an Australian backer, and Ms De La Harpe is hoping the programme will continue to go from strength to strength.

“Statistics show the one thing that is more powerful than reading to a child is having an adult around who is passionate about literature themselves, and that is something I hope to get across as well,” Ms De La Harpe said.

Joining her at DARG last week was pupil Sibu Sabisa, who will be going into Grade 2 at Disa Primary School in the new year. Selecting one of his favourite books from Ms De La Harpe’s bag, he settled in to read to a mother cat and her kittens in one of the enclosures.

There may have been curiosity aplenty among the cats, but thankfully not enough to lend credence to the cliche and its fatal outcome. The animals were soon brushing up against the reader and his mentor, filling the small room with exactly the kind of positive reinforcement Story Tails aims for.

Then it was the turn of the programme’s main reading dog, Sia, to gauge Sibu’s progress. Once leashed, Sia immediately made a beeline for DARG’s charity bookstore, a familiar landmark on her “literary” journey around Hout Bay. Among the piles of books she was in her element, and was clearly accustomed to the routine as Sibu began reading aloud to her. From lying quietly as the words flowed to springing up when invited to look at the illustrations, her enthusiasm was almost like that of a child herself.

“DARG does such an amazing job looking after these dogs, and I am just so grateful we can use them in the programme,” Ms De La Harpe said.

“It’s just such a wonderful thing for the kids to be able to experience their eyes, smells and licks. It’s a new association to reading.”

DARG managing director Faustina Gardner said Ms De La Harpe’s project was “very close to our hearts at DARG”.

“We believe education is key and what could be more special than children learning while surrounded by the unconditional love of our animals,” she said.