Are Picture Books Warping How Kids Understand Animals?

Anthropomorphizing animals is a bad strategy for education, a new study suggests.
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Anthropomorphizing animals is a bad strategy for education, a new study suggests.
(Photo: Erin Kinney/Flickr)

(Photo: Erin Kinney/Flickr)

For many kids, learning about the world starts with picture books. Parents and teachers surround children with Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur, and the Berenstain Bears, because what’s more promising than seeing a four-year-old with his or her nose in a book, soaking up everything it has to teach?

But what if many of the books we give our kids aren't educating them as well as we thought? A study published in Frontiers in Psychology last week suggests some picture books actually may warp a child's view of the world, not inform it.

“Picture books are a significant source of information about the biological world for young children and yet the majority of books for young children present the natural world in a highly distorted way,” write a group of researchers led by the University of Toronto's Patricia Ganea.

"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 world."

Their study focused on the effects of picture books’ tendency to anthropomorphize animals—that is, to depict and describe animals in human terms (wearing clothes, talking). While anthropomorphic traits might make animals in books more accessible to young readers, could throwing realism out the window make it harder for kids to understand how these animals actually behave?

Over two experiments, the researchers tested preschool- and kindergarten-aged kids’ knowledge of a few obscure animals—cavies, oxpeckers, and handfish—by reading books about the animals with them and then asking questions. Some books contained realistic pictures and descriptions, some cartoon drawings and humanized language (e.g., “mother cavy tucks her babies into bed in a small cave”), and some a mix.

While all kids learned something about the three animals from whichever book they read, those who read the realistic books ended up with a better factual understanding of the creatures. Those who read the anthropomorphized books didn’t learn as much and also had a harder time reasoning about the animals.

“Children are sensitive to whether the structure of the story world resembles the structure of the real world, and their learning is disrupted if content information is portrayed in a ‘far’ fantastical context,” Ganea and her colleagues write.

They are careful to note that these results don't suggest children shouldn't read the same fiction we grew up with. "Of course parents should read a variety of books to their children," Ganea toldNational Geographic. "Fantasy is important for their imagination and their cognitive development."

But she worries about fiction's monopoly on classroom shelf space. Teachers stock only a very small percentage of informational and non-fiction books, according to the study. This could mislead kids in insular urban neighborhoods who may miss out on exposure to wildlife.

"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 world," the researchers write. "If we want children to learn new things about animals, we need to expose them to stories that present the animals and their environments in a biologically realistic manner."

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