Children’s Pop-Up Books Flop as Learning Tool

New research finds children learn less from pop-up books than they do from old-fashioned volumes illustrated with photos.
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New research finds children learn less from pop-up books than they do from old-fashioned volumes illustrated with photos.

Around the mid-1960s, publishers decided that old-fashioned children’s books — the kinds with large-type print and colorful photographic illustrations — were passé. Led by Waldo Hunt and Bennett Cerf, they revived the 19th-century concept of pop-up books, which allowed young readers to create three-dimensional worlds by simply pulling a tab or turning a page.

Their guiding belief was that these books were more interactive and thus more engaging to young readers. While that may be true, it fails to address a crucial point: Many, if not most, children’s books are meant to be educational. And new research finds youngsters learn more by leafing through traditional books — ones where the illustrations stay on the page.

A research team led by University of Virginia psychologist Medha Tare came to this conclusion after performing two experiments, which are described in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. The first featured 54 children, ages 18 to 22 months. (The researchers report eight additional children were excluded from the study “due to fussiness,” a phrase one doesn’t encounter nearly enough in academic research papers.)

With an experimenter by his or her side, each child spent three to five minutes looking through a picture book about animals. One-third of the kids saw a book illustrated with photographs; one-third saw a book illustrated with drawings; and the final third saw a pop-up book. Those in the pop-up book group were encouraged to interact with the volume’s manipulative features, such as lifting flaps that caused the animals to move.

The experimenter made special mention of one “target animal” for each child (either a parrot or flamingo), pointing it out and repeating its name several times. Afterward, the kids were given a series of tests to see how much information they had retained.

Specifically, they were presented with two bird images (which were different from the illustrations they had seen) and two miniature bird toys, then asked to pick out the bird the experimenter had previously pointed out.

Those exposed to the book with the photographic images were able to correctly identify their bird nearly 80 percent of the time. Those who saw the book with the drawings did so around 70 percent of the time. But those who were entertained by the pop-ups did so only 50 percent of the time — no better than chance.

A second experiment featured 48 children ages 27 to 32 months. Like their younger counterparts, they looked through one of the three books. As they did so, the experimenter pointed out certain facts, such as “chicks like to eat worms” and “monkeys like to eat bananas.” They were later asked to recall this information, answering such questions as “Which one likes to eat worms?”

The results mirrored those of the first experiment. The kids who looked at the photo-illustration book did the best, while those exposed to the pop-up book did the worst.

Why were the pop-ups relatively ineffective as a learning tool? Tare and her team, which included veteran research psychologist Judy DeLoache, point to earlier research suggesting that when children “have been encouraged to manipulate and play” with something, it becomes harder for them to grasp the fact that object is actually a symbol of something else (say, a picture of a parrot). They’re more focused on the object they’re manipulating and less concerned with what it’s supposed to represent.

In addition, “the children’s manipulation of the flaps and pull-tabs on the page might have increased their cognitive load such that they could not additionally process what the adult was saying about the content of the book,” they write. “Because it did not have such distracting elements, and had more detailed images, learning labels and facts from the realistic book may have been an easier task.”

The researchers conclude that while pop-up books “may have their place as entertainment,” their “bells and whistles” approach appears to be counterproductive to learning. “When attempting to convey information to young children,” they add, “less is more.”