As a parent, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether children's book authors have grown bored with the narrative potential of regular humans over the years. In my own recent bedtime storytelling, there have been frogs and toads tobogganing together, badgers going on picnics and a tooth-fairy mouse – not to mention the Beatrix Potter, Richard Scarry and other kidlit oeuvres we dip into on occasion.
For the most part, these are fun, colourful books to enjoy with my son. But I may consider adding in a hard-core nature book or two after reading a new study of children ages 3-5 that found cartoony images of animals in books acting like humans inhibit children's understanding of the natural world – and their learning in general.
"Books that portray animals realistically lead to more learning and more accurate biological understanding," lead author Dr. Patricia Ganea said in a release."We were surprised to find that even the older children in our study were sensitive to the anthropocentric portrayals of animals in the books and attributed more human characteristics to animals after being exposed to fantastical books than after being exposed to realistic books."
Ganea, an assistant professor with the University of Toronto's department of applied psychology and human development, along with colleagues from the University of Toronto, Boston University and Florida International University, conducted testing on two groups of children, one in Boston and one in Toronto.
They read to children using a variety of books with various mixes of natural and anthropomorphized images and stories about animals few of us know anything about – cavies, oxpeckers, and handfish – which ensured few preconceived notions.
Some of the books told humanesque tales about the animals: "Mother cavy tucks her babies into bed in a small cave … 'Don't be afraid,' she says. 'I'll listen for noises with my big ears to keep us safe.' " Others included just factual information: "Oxpeckers sit on the backs of large animals, like rhinoceros."
Researchers then showed children photographs of the animals depicted in the books and asked the kids about what they'd read with questions including "Do cavies talk?" and "Can handfish feel proud?"
As you might imagine, kids don't learn much about animals when they're illustrated and written about as merely human stand-ins. In one of the two experiments they conducted, the researchers found that kids can learn factual information from books with anthropomorphic pictures. But when both the images and the text were anthropomorphic, children were less likely to pick up facts and apply them to an image of the real animal.
"The research presented here points to the importance of carefully considering the type of books that we use with young children when teaching them new information about the world," Ganea writes in the study. "Books that do not present animals and their environments accurately from a biological perspective may not only lead to less learning but also influence children to adopt a human-centered view of the animal world."
This might be even more crucial to consider, as another study found that the use of the outdoors and animals in children's literature has been on the decline since the 1970s; as more kids are raised in urban landscapes, their books come to reflect that reality.
Maybe this is all a (sad) reflection of our general disengagement with the natural world – and a reminder to parents and educators to sneak in some information about real animals into story time at home and school. (But don't say take kids to the zoo; many of us are feeling conflicted about those after recent public giraffe and lion executions.)
And at least in my home, I'm hoping a few cute, anthropomorphized animals are better than another scourge I hope academics are analyzing as I write: The rise of books starring Star Wars characters, or their Lego counterpart. Or maybe that's just a trend that's making this mother weary.