Interview

Cara Zelas

Creator of Big World of Little Dude

About Cara

Cara is from Sydney, Australia and has been living in New York for the past 10 years. She is an author, educator and specialist in social and emotional learning.

 

She is married to Seth Ginsberg, who is a health advocate. Together they have two children, Grace (4) and Theodore (9 months), as well as an adorable dog, Little Dude. 

Big World Little Dude

Big World of Little Dude is an educational platform, a book series and curriculum providing social and emotional learning. Little Dude is a certified therapy dog. Cara and Little Dude visit schools, libraries, and hospitals throughout New York City. 

How can therapy dogs support social emotional learning?

For social and emotional learning, bringing a therapy dog into a classroom can be taken a few different ways. A therapy dog can be used as a teaching tool as to how to take care of a dog - walks, feedings, vet visits, affection. This can then be related to the children’s own experiences of taking care of themselves as well as relating this to how to take care of others. This can be segued into teaching empathy in a tangible way, for example, the dog visits the vet to get shots, and relating it back to the children’s similar experiences. Alternatively, the children could learn what a therapy dog is, what role they play and how they help the community, highlighting being kind to others.

A therapy dog is trained through a certified organization. The training involves the handler (or owner) to teach the dog the basic commands of sit, stay, down and come. As well as to make sure the dog has the right temperament - does not bark, shows no signs of aggression, won’t react negatively to having their fur pulled, and to be comfortable to be around a range of people and noises.

What makes a therapy dog different from a normal dog?
How has having Little Dude helped your own family?

Little Dude loves unconditionally, he brings laughter when he gets the zoomies, he brings happiness with endless snuggles. He has also shown our daughter the importance of taking care of an animal (and in turn, relating this to taking care of others) - he needs to be walked, fed, taken to the vet, and shown affection.

Where can teachers find local therapy dogs to visit their classrooms?

Search locally for therapy dog organizations. The American Kennel Club has released a list of certified therapy dog organizations across the USA. 

 

If there is objection from administration or parents about having a dog in the classroom, check out Pets in the Classroom, they offer grants for schools to adopt a range of animals. 

 

If bringing an animal into the classroom is out of the question, search for a local dog shelter, there are many who are open to visits from schools. There would be various teachable moments in a class trip like this.

How have you discussed COVID with your children? 

At first, we kept our daughter in a bubble. We left the city to be in a more rural setting as we felt this would be safer for our family and told our daughter that we were going on a vacation. Upon reflection, I think my husband and I needed to process what was going on first and let the new reality sink in. Subconsciously I am sure she knew something was amiss as there were a lot of intense conversations and a lot of new language being used in our home - virus, Corona, Covid-19, etc..

 

As time went on, we began talking about the virus. We read books and watched age appropriate science-based videos explaining what germs are and how they spread. We did experiments with bread (wiped it on various surfaces as well as on clean hands) and observed what happened; we put sparkles in water and dipped in our hands and then washed them. We spoke about wearing masks and how they kept us and the people around us safe. We are trying to balance giving her enough information for her to process what’s going on however also not wanting to focus too much on Covid so she does not become too anxious that it would have a lasting impact. We wrap her up in love so she feels safe. I am thankful that our 9 month old has no idea what’s going on!

What have you found the most challenging in regards to balancing family and work?

Mental health has been the most challenging - a lot happened quickly - it felt like a rollercoaster. Absorbing all the new information or lack of, on a micro-level as well as the implications this is having on the world on a macro-level, felt at times overwhelming. 

What means of self-care have you found to be effective for you?

Gratitude - we kept bringing it back to being grateful for our health and safety, for being together, for having jobs and food and love. In the tough moments, focusing on this was my biggest form of self-care. Also being active, walking and, bike rides were vital to keeping mentally healthy. Many phone calls with family and friends. And family snuggles helped a lot! 

You've been doing so much since the pandemic started to support families. Can you tell us about it?

We created a hands-on, fun and engaging curriculum to help parents continue learning at home for their children. The activities focus on four key areas: movement, learning, play and creating to keep children occupied and to help parents take the guess work out of what to plan as well as a technology-free alternative. 

Big World of Little Dude Guides
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New York, NY, USA

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