Pop-Up Books: More, in Fact, Is More

A recent study that dismissed the effectiveness of pop-up books was flawed from the start, argues best-selling children’s book author Sally Blakemore.

All it took was seeing an open pop-up book in a bookshop window in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s to inspire Waldo Hunt, the founder of the pop-up industry in the United States, to create a lifetime of learning and curiosity for millions of children and adults. I was one of those children. In 1956, at 8 years of age, I was given a die-cut Hallmark card that eventually led me into a 30-year fascination with printing, die-cut shapes and pop-up books — the latter a sculptural art form for storytelling and learning.

So, that is why I was surprised to read Tom Jacobs’ Aug. 9, Miller-McCune article titled, and flippantly so, “Children’s Pop-up Books Flop as Learning Tool” and its description of “new research” that concludes, as Jacobs writes, that “while pop-up books ‘may have their place as entertainment,’ their ‘bells and whistles’ approach appears to be counterproductive to learning.”

The subtitle of the article says that the research finds that “children learn less from pop-up books” than they do from flat books with photographs.

Jacobs writes that experimenters led by a University of Virginia psychologist tested 54 children 18 to 22 months of age in one of two experiments, to see “how much information they retained” after having viewed, for three to five minutes, a book illustrated with photographs, a book illustrated with drawings or a pop-up book (the children viewing the pop-up were encouraged to interact with its features).

“With an experimenter by his or her side,” each child looked through one of the three books as the experimenter pointed to a “target animal” (a flamingo or a parrot) and repeated its name several times.

The children were subsequently shown two bird images (different from the images they had seen earlier) and two “miniature bird toys” and were asked to pick out the bird that had been pointed out earlier.

A page from "Extreme Bugs," a pop-up book by Sally Blakemore.

A page from "Extreme Bugs," a pop-up book by Sally Blakemore.

According to the researchers, those who looked through the book of photographs “identified” the bird correctly “nearly 80 percent of the time”; those of the second group, some 70 percent of the time; those of the last group, only 50 percent of the time.

A second group of 48 children, aged 27 to 32 months, was said to have shown similar results after being apprised of stereotypical food preferences of certain animals and then asked questions like, ‘Which animal likes to eat worms?’

Let’s take a closer look at the study, which was flawed by, among other things, age-inappropriateness, and at the article itself, which tells us surprisingly little about the controls of the experiments.

Did it ever occur to the researchers or to the author of the article that pop-up books are not produced for children under 3? Or why pop-up books are not marketed for children under 3? This age level may surprise some consumers who see pop-ups as appropriate for the very young. Although flap books are within toddlers’ range of discovery, more complicated pop-up structures evade their conceptual understanding, particularly if the focus is on "labeling or naming a recognizable image" within a complicated pop-up.

Which is not to say book for the under-3 set can’t have some action: When I create books for toddlers I use one image, very graphic with one activity per page and lots of color.

In this context, did it occur to the researchers or the author that encouraging children as young as 18 months of age to “manipulate and play” with (read: focus on) the features of a pop-up book would render the children “distracted,” not to mention inattentive to an experimenter poking at a picture and repeating a word they may never have heard before? And were the “distracting” books that were used in the experiments actually pop-ups, or were they flap books, or were they a combination of the two?

It doesn’t appear that the researchers thought enough about what actually constitutes age-appropriate learning for children aged 18 to 32 months.

According the American Academy of Pediatrics, developmental milestones for healthy children 2 years of age include the following:

Language milestones

• Points to object or picture when it’s named for him

• Recognizes names of familiar people, objects, and body parts

• Says several single words (by 15 to 18 months)

• Uses simple phrases (by 18 to 24 months)

• Follows simple instructions

• Repeats words overheard in conversation

Cognitive milestones

• Finds objects even when hidden under two or three covers

• Begins to sort by shapes and colors

• Begins make-believe play

All of those things, as well as milestones in movement, finger and hand skills, social behaviors and emotions, represent the achievements of a child whose learning, at that age, consists in exploring and investigating the world as much as, if not more than, labeling it. How many of those milestones did the experiments address? Enough to label an entire industry a “flop”?

More importantly, as the American Academy of Pediatrics points out, each child develops at his or her own particular pace, which makes it impossible to tell when a child will perfect a given skill. Was three to five minutes enough to conclude, essentially, that no learning took place in some of the children?

Testing in and of itself is often a poor indicator of learning. Unable to read at the age of 9 because of dyslexia and synesthesia, I always tested poorly in school. But I discovered comic books and illustrated Golden Books that used die-cut covers and nonlinear stories that combined words and illustration, and they helped me to learn how to learn.

Jane McTiegue, a colleague of mine working in curriculum studies, has incorporated her love of paper engineering into arts programs in schools. She points to a 2006 study, “Critical Evidence: How the ARTS Benefit Student Achievement,” which has this to say: “Researchers continue to explore the complex processes involved in learning and the acquisition of knowledge and skills. One promising line of inquiry focuses on how to measure the full range of benefits associated with arts learning. These include efforts to develop a reliable means to assess some of the subtler effects of arts learning that standardized tests fail to capture, such as the motivation to achieve or the ability to think critically.”

It’s puzzling and disappointing to see the apparent lack of importance the “new research” that was cited in Jacobs’s article attaches to play as a means of learning. Those children pulling on tabs and lifting flaps may not have been learning to label, but they were learning something, because a child lost in play is a child whose synapses are being fired by curiosity and imagination, the two mainstays of creativity.

And creativity involves critical thinking, even if that thinking is based on knowledge “unlabeled,” as it were. And a very magical thing sometimes happens when children are playing. Remarkably, an 8-year-old girl attending my African marimba classes was, after learning to play complicated polyrhythms, able to read fluidly for the first time in her life. Broca’s region of the brain, where our language skills begin, is activated during auditory rhythm-monitoring tasks.

The fact is, different children learn in different ways. Did the tests reported in Jacobs’ article allow for the children who learn through touch, for the children who learn through storytelling, for the children who learn through experience, for the children who learn through pattern recognition and matching or through nature itself? Did the tests tell us anything of significance about the learning process itself and its myriad paths?

The article quotes the researchers as saying, “When attempting to convey information to young children, less is more.” I don’t agree, because our children need to learn more than labeling.