Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson (GoComics.com)

 

 

 

 

Cathy Newman might wonder if Calvin has been reading National Geographic:

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.

 

Paul Bisceglio reviewed the study that questions whether picture books are warping how kids understand animals:

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.

 

Newman spoke with the study’s lead author about the inevitable negative headlines (London Daily Express: “Stop reading Jungle Book and Winnie The Pooh as it ‘humanises animals’, parents told”) the research generated:

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.