Teaching elementary students about farmed animals is a tricky topic. Students this age are developing both intellectually and emotionally, and we want to shield them from information that might be disturbing, including facts about how animals are raised for food. However, elementary students are also developing their own sense of identity, morality, and understanding of how the world works. For this reason, we want to provide accurate information that will allow them to make informed choices about the foods they eat and to foster compassion for all animals.
Below are some tips and resources on how to teach about farmed animal issues with this delicate balance in mind.
Foster Empathy and Connection
One of the simplest ways to teach young people about farmed animals is to focus on the similarities between themselves and animals that are frequently used in the food industry. Just like humans, farmed animals love their families, enjoy playing, and have the same basic needs for food, shelter, and safety. Learning about how they are similar to animals like cows, pigs, and chickens will help students empathize with these animals and build a sense of connection.
To help teach about the similarities between humans and farmed animals to K-2 students, HEART has a lesson in our free resource guide titled “Moo, Oink, Cluck” that includes a guessing game. Students are asked to guess the identity of a farmed animal based on facts about that species. Following this activity, the instructor asks students to discuss how their lives are similar to those of the animals they just learned about. For example, students are asked which animal has a protective mother who will stretch her wings over her babies to hide them from danger. The correct answer is chickens; however, the exercise does not need to end there. Rather, a conversation can be started about how human mothers care for, protect, and love their babies, just like farmed animals do.
For elementary students of any age, you can teach this topic by reading stories or showing videos about farmed animals and then asking students to make connections. Our students love this video about pigs playing video games, The Inner World of Farm Animals by Amy Hatkoff offers a lot of great stories about farmed animals, and the film, Peaceable Kingdom, is a great and age-appropriate visual resource.
Question Assumptions about Farmed Animals
Most elementary students are unaware of the conditions on modern factory farms, and they assume that farmed animals live on pastures with plenty of room to roam around. Students may also have negative assumptions about the intelligence and emotions of farmed animals and view them as objects devoid of thoughts or feelings.
One way to help students of any age question these assumptions is by teaching about “hero animals”, individuals who have proven these conjectures wrong. For example, you can read articles, such as this one, about farmed animals who have rescued their guardians or other animals. Stories such as this one disprove that farmed animals are unintelligent or lack complex emotions.
For grades 3-8, HEART’s free resource guide contains age-appropriate lessons about the treatment of animals on factory farms. In the “Friends on the Farm” lesson, 3rd-5th grade students watch The Meatrix I and then compare the lives of animals on factory farms with the lives of these animals in their natural habitat. In our “Behind Closed Doors” lesson, 6th-8th grade students are given a true/false quiz that covers many common assumptions about modern animal agriculture with statements such as “Most farmed animals live on small family farms where they are treated humanely.” Lessons like these are effective because the content allows students to gain a better understanding of farmed animals, their complexities, and the cruelties of factory farming without being overly graphic or disturbing.
We’ve only scratched the surface of ideas and resources for teaching elementary school students about farmed animals. Have a suggestion? We’d love hear it so please share in the comment section!