The Jane Goodall Story for Kids

Do you have a special toy that helps you go to sleep at night? Maybe a bear, or a rabbit, or a penguin? Lots of kids have stuffed animals that help them feel safe and cozy at night. 

The scientist Jane Goodall also had a special stuffed animal when she was a child. Her story starts back in 1930s London, and it was her father who gave her the special animal. Its name was Jubilee, and Jubilee was a chimpanzee. Her father didn’t know it at the time, but chimpanzees would turn out to be a very important part of Jane’s life. As a grown-up, she would become a primatologist, a person who studies apes and monkeys. She would become one of the first people to study chimpanzees in the wild, and one of the first women in the field of primatology. 

Jane was obsessed with all kinds of animals from a young age, not just chimpanzees. When she was a toddler, she brought worms into her bed because she was so curious about them. Instead of getting mad when she found her daughter carefully watching her wriggly new friends, Jane’s mother told her gently that the worms couldn’t survive inside, and needed to be outside in the dirt. I don’t know, but maybe this is what made her father think that she needed a special stuffed animal to sleep with!

Living in the city, Jane didn’t have a lot of opportunities to watch animals. That’s why it was so exciting when she got to visit a relative’s farm when she was four. At the farm, she was given the job of gathering eggs that the chickens had laid. Being a very curious child, Jane wanted to know how the hens laid their eggs. She watched them pecking around the yard, but they never laid eggs there. She watched them going into the henhouse, but couldn’t really see them laying there either, but it was hard to see inside. She asked the grown-ups in her family, but they wouldn’t tell her either. So Jane hatched a plan. She knew that the chickens laid their eggs on special nests in the henhouse, so she decided to go inside, watch quietly, and wait. 

So one morning, that’s what she did. She crawled into the henhouse, covered herself in hay, and sat in a dark corner. Then she waited. And waited. And waited. For hours. The grown-ups had no idea where she was, and became worried.  As the day wore on and Jane didn’t come home, they started looking for her, calling her name as they walked all around the fields and surrounding area. 

But still, Jane waited and watched. Finally, late in the afternoon, her patience paid off: She saw a hen lay an egg! She burst out of the henhouse, hay stuck to her clothes and hair, shouting to her parents about her discovery. Fortunately, Jane’s mother again saw things from her daughter’s perspective. She sat down with Jane and listened while she told her all about her discovery, how chickens lay eggs. Jane’s mother realized that she had a curious, determined, and patient daughter, and wanted to support and encourage her. 

Inspired by the book Tarzan and the Apes, Jane decided at age 10 that she wanted to go to Africa to study animals and write books about them. At the time, most grown-ups around her thought this was a crazy idea. World War II was raging in Europe, and Africa was known back then as a “dark continent” because not many Europeans had explored it and it wasn’t easy to travel there. People also thought back then that adventures like the one Jane was dreaming of were just for boys. But Jane’s mother was not most grown-ups. As always, she supported her daughter. She told her that it wouldn’t be easy, but if she worked hard and took any opportunity that came along, she could do whatever she set her mind to.

As a young woman, Jane continued to dream of going to Africa to study animals. Her opportunity finally arrived when she was 23, and a friend invited her to visit Kenya. She moved back to her parents’ home and worked very hard for a whole summer to earn enough money to make the journey. Finally, she made enough to buy a ticket on a boat and make the first part of her dream come true: she was on her way to Africa.

Once she was in Africa, Jane met the famous anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey. Louis was impressed by Jane and hired her to work as his secretary in Tanzania, where he and his wife were doing their own research. After a few years, he sent Jane to the Gombe Preserve in Tanzania to study chimpanzees. The second part of Jane’s dream was coming true!

But it wasn’t as simple as packing her bags and heading into the forest. As one of the first women in primatology, the British managers of the preserve thought that Jane wouldn’t be safe as a young woman working in the wilderness. They insisted that she bring a chaperone, or someone to look after her, even though she was a grown-up who had lived by herself before. Jane’s mother stepped forward once again to support her daughter and went with her to Gombe as she started her research. 

The forest was a thick tangle of trees, plants, and vines, and there were dangerous animals to worry about. Jane’s tools when she went out to observe the animals were basic: a notebook, binoculars, and some food. But if the managers of Gombe Preserve were afraid for Jane, it didn’t make a difference to her. Instead of being afraid when she went into the forest for the first time, Jane has said that she felt like she was “coming home” to a place where she belonged. 

Jane’s way of working with chimpanzees was unconventional for the time. At this point, she still hadn’t gone to college or gotten a degree, so she didn’t know how researchers normally did things. She gave names to the animals she observed, like Greybeard, Goliath, and Flo, instead of numbers. She would watch them quietly for hours, so they got used to her, and would sometimes even approach her. This allowed Jane to get much closer than any other scientist had before. 

But even though she didn’t do things the way a primatologist was “supposed to,” Jane’s methods turned out to work very well! With patience and perseverance, she was able to observe many things about chimpanzee life that no one had ever noticed before. She got to know each animal as an individual and saw that each chimp had a unique personality, a lot like humans. She observed them hugging, kissing, and patting each other on the back. They seemed to have human-like emotions too–to feel sad, happy, and angry. They seemed to love and show affection for each other. 

She also saw them making tools, which was hard for other scientists at the time to believe. Many of them thought that only humans made tools. She had seen chimpanzees use pieces of grass or sticks to fish termites out of holes in their mounds. They would also use rocks to pound open fruit. Child chimpanzees even have toys–they use vines to play tug-of-war!

After Jane had spent a few years observing chimpanzees at Gombe, Louis Leakey arranged for her to attend Cambridge University to earn a doctoral degree. So she went back to England for a while but returned to Gombe to continue her work there afterward. She set up a research center at Gombe where scientists still study chimpanzees today. And, just like she decided she would when she was 10 years old, she wrote several books on her experiences with the apes.

Dr. Jane, as people often call her now, still works on behalf of chimpanzees. She spends her time traveling around the world meeting and talking to people about how to help protect nature and animals. She loves speaking with young people especially and carries a stuffed monkey (not a chimp!) with her wherever she goes. She believes that young people can be very powerful and change the world if grown-ups just listen to them.

Sometimes, a person can make a difference in unexpected ways, and small actions can add up to bigger changes. Dr. Jane used her patience and determination, quietly watching chimpanzees for hundreds of hours, to learn things that no one else ever suspected. Now, she uses that quiet patience and determination to inspire others to have hope and work to make the world a better place. I’ll leave you today with a quote from Dr. Jane herself: “Each and every one of us makes a difference each and every day, and we have a choice: What kind of difference are we going to make?”

I hope Dr. Jane’s story inspires you to think about the things you can do to make a difference for the better!