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‘Real’ animal books better at helping kids learn

black-beautyA Canadian study has found that kids’ books featuring animals with human characteristics lead to less factual learning, and influences children’s reasoning about animals.

Researchers also found that young readers are more likely to attribute human behaviors and emotions to animals when exposed to books with anthropomorphized animals than books depicting animals realistically.

“Books that portray animals realistically lead to more learning and more accurate biological understanding,” says lead author Patricia Ganea, Assistant Professor with the University of Toronto’s Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development.

“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.”

The team said the study had implications for the type of books adults use to teach children about the real world. The researchers advise parents and teachers to consider using a variety of informational and nonfiction books, and to use factual language when describing the biological world to young children.

The researchers assessed the impact of depictions (a bird wearing clothes and reading a book) and language (bird described as talking and as having human intentions).

In the first study children aged three, four and five saw picture books featuring realistic drawings of a novel animal. Half of the children also heard factual, realistic language, while the other half heard anthropomorphized language.

In the second study, the first study was replicated, using anthropomorphic illustrations of real animals.

“The results show that the language used to describe animals in books has an effect on children’s tendency to attribute human-like traits to animals, and that anthropomorphic storybooks affect younger children’s learning of novel facts about animals. These results indicate that anthropomorphized animals in books may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.

The study was recently published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals.
Patricia A Ganea, Caitlin F. Canfield, Kadria Simons and Tommy Chou.
Frontiers in Psychology 5:283. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00283

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Comments (4)

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  1. Jesse says:

    The study is based on a false premise. Sure, birds don’t wear clothes or read books. But they do communicate with each other, and they do have intentions. It’s important for children to learn that animals are aware beings like us. (We’re animals too, by the way.)

  2. dlweld says:

    The scientists have a “pathetic fallacy” of their own – they believe that man and animals don’t share a continuum of characteristics – ie that man is magically totally different from animals – we have emotions – they have none, we are self aware – they are not, we can think and deduce – they can’t. Well sorry prof. it makes much more sense to assume a continuum – they’re the same as us – we’re just more developed – odd for scientists to assume a near religous idea of man being removed from his animal ancestors. A strange anthropocentric fallacy of a divine spark.

  3. Bob says:

    Despite the addition of Black Beauty to this report, the study used only picture books meant for very young readers. It proved that toddlers have unrealistic understanding of animal behavior. Shocking!

  4. nan says:

    It does make sense for kids to learn that other animals are intentional beings (or more accurately, “if we are then they are”). OTOH other animals, or even other humans, can have very different interpretations of the world and interactions in it, and that richness is lost by presenting everything from a human perspective.

    I guess I’d focus on why the character is a nonhuman animal and why metaphors of human behaviour are being used in the first place – there are probably good reasons of story, familiarity and identification.

    Really it sounds like a lot of storytelling is just lazily done.

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