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A boy in Berlin, Germany, relaxes with a children's book that features animal characters.


Hey Kids, All Deer Aren't Like Bambi

A new study shows that humanized animals don't exactly teach children what wildlife is really like.

Once upon a time—actually on March 25—a study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. It asked what kinds of books enable children to learn facts about wildlife better: fantastical books in which animals wear clothes and speak, or realistic books of, say, the National Geographic variety.

Dear reader, fret not that the lead researcher, Patricia Ganea, an assistant professor in applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, is casting aspersions on the Berenstain Bears or Sonic the Hedgehog. Not at all. It is merely an inquiry, she says, into what kinds of books help three- to five-year-olds learn. We asked her to explain.

Tell us what questions your research addresses.

We wanted to know whether children's learning of facts about unfamiliar animals is influenced by the types of books they are exposed to. Also, whether children's tendency to apply humanlike properties to animals is influenced by books.

And the results?

Children are more likely to think of animals having human characteristics if exposed to books with fantastical images and anthropomorphic language. Also, children learn more facts about animals from books that use factual language and realistic illustration.

Your work seems to have struck a negative nerve. "Stop reading Jungle Book and Winnie The Pooh as it 'humanises animals', parents told," was one headline I saw in the London Daily Express. There were others.

People have gone crazy out there. They think we are saying, don't read books that interweave fantasy with reality. That's not the message from this. It's if you want your children to learn more facts about animals, it would be better to use books that are more realistic. Of course parents should read a variety of books to their children. Fantasy is important for their imagination and their cognitive development.

You have children yourself. What did they read when they were young?

We loved Winnie the Pooh. But we also read expository books about animals.

Why is this study important?

I think because it may have implications for our use of picture books as a tool for science education. Studies say picture books are an excellent tool for giving kids knowledge about the world. You can have a five- or six-year-old learn important biological concepts. So our work suggests if you want to establish foundations for a more accurate scientific understanding of the world early on, you use factual books.

But wouldn't children grow out of the tendency to anthropomorphize animals anyway?

The tendency to anthropomorphize nature is not just in children. You find it even in adults. The question is whether these inaccurate ideas early on will interfere with the acquisition of knowledge later on.

Any other similar studies on the horizon?

One of my students is asking whether children are more likely to apply the moral of a story to themselves if they are presented with animal characters instead of humans.

Aesop's fables come to mind: "The Fox and the Grapes," "The Ant and the Grasshopper."

Yes. Perhaps the reason to use animals is to add some emotional distance between the child and the message of the story. But perhaps you have the unwanted consequence that they may not transfer the information from the story to themselves.

Would you like to make a guess on the answer to this one?

I am not going to make predictions.