Young students are in greater-than-ever need of sources of comfort. Caring for animals provides one of these sources. It makes sense—caring for an animal builds an array of social and emotional and character competencies. But bringing in animals to interact with students isn’t feasible for most schools. A more widely available option is plush toys.
A lot has been written about the value of these toys for young children. They help them develop sensory skills. Children also derive comfort from cuddling stuffed animals and build social skills by involving their animals in pretend-play scenarios.
Some schools have “keep calm” corners with stuffed animals as part of the décor, and many children can use them for self-soothing. In some classrooms, teachers have designated certain plush toys as “comfort helpers” and give them to students who are showing signs of upset or anxiety about upcoming classroom routines or activities.
Another option is for students to be able to go and get one when needed with various sign-out and usage-time procedures in place, so that a few plush toys can go a longer way among more students. More acceptable for older elementary students are finger or hand-animal puppets.
But what of young children who are still working on self-regulation? Or who would benefit from the tangible feel of a living animal more than the tactile reassurance of the stuffed animal? There is another emerging option, and it has been hiding in plain sight: animatronics, something top toy makers have understood for many years.
Imagine a toy the size of a small dog that looks authentic, feels like a stuffed animal, and "breathes" along with young children. Further, imagine that this dog has a prosthetic leg (evoking empathy and resilience) and wears a service vest (denoting power and self-control). In 2020, Breathing Bouncy, an animatronic service dog, arrived on the scene, embodying all of the aforementioned attributes. Bouncy also denotes an optimistic ability to overcome setbacks and succeed against the odds. The toy is available for use in both English and Spanish.
The “Breathing” part of the name signifies, in particular, Bouncy’s value as a “co-regulator,” in terms of both helping regulate young children’s breathing and allowing them to care for Bouncy. The toy is produced by Ripple Effects, a company that creates applications of SEL using technology. The company also provides support materials that explain how to use Bouncy and his backstory.
Schools can purchase a Bouncy for $450 or can opt for a $1,349 classroom kit that includes a Bouncy along with supplemental digital and physical components for 25 students. Because Bouncy and related toys are designed to reduce the effects of traumatic situations due to Covid and other difficult experiences that can interfere with academic achievement, schools may be able to use Every Student Succeeds Act or related funds to obtain these resources.
Research from my Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab examined young children’s preference for live characters on an SEL video series, Talking With TJ, versus animated versions of the same characters. The results were clear and consistent: Students identified strongly with both, including with regard to questions such as how much the characters were liked, how much students believed the character cared about them, and how helpful they perceived the characters to be.
A pilot study about Bouncy, which involved a small number of students, was presented at the Society for Prevention Research in 2022. It found that using Bouncy helped young children reduce their disruptive behaviors. These findings suggest that it’s quite possible for animatronic stuffed animals to have many of the advantages of a live service dog and a plush toy with additional valuable features.
This would be no surprise to teachers like Anita Compart, an early childhood special educator in Des Plaines, Illinois. In 2020, she was one of many teachers looking for ways to help their young charges cope with all the uncertainties and stresses of life and learning. She saw that her students were engaged by Bouncy and loved to care for it. She also saw that when children held Bouncy against their chest and stomach, their breathing gradually slowed to Bouncy’s more relaxed pace.
Companionship and Support
Bouncy is the vanguard of this emerging technology, which should dramatically increase young children’s access to sources of calming and comfort in schools (as well as other settings). In these times, when there does not seem to be an impending letup in stress and crises, it can become a feasible standard procedure for every early childhood and elementary classroom to have a live, plush, and/or animatronic animal for companionship and support.