Monday, March 31, 2014

Do talking animals make our kids dumb?

image In case you don’t feel like reading on, the answer is no.

But the question has been raking up headlines all week anyway, thanks to a University of Toronto (my alma mater !  so proud !) study proving that they do. 

Or at least, kind of proving they do. 

As it turns out, what they’ve done says very little about children’s books – in particular, not much we have to pay attention to as writers or as parents.

But along the way we can have a bit of a laugh looking at the samples of the stories they used, and looking at examples of talking animals who help our kids learn… so keep right on reading!

The Claim:  Talking Animals Hinder Learning

These results indicate that anthropomorphized animals in books may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals. (read the full study here)

This kind of sensationalistic stuff adapts really well to headlines!

Anthropomorphism in Children's Books Leads to Less Factual Learning About Animals shouts one article.  Eek!  Less factual learning!  Which, first of all, is not the only goal of learning.  And second of all, is a darn hard thing to measure.

Meanwhile, National Geographic proclaims, “Hey Kids, All Deer Aren’t Like Bambi!”

What kind of dumb kid doesn’t know that?  The researcher was quick to reassure NatGeo that she’s not “casting aspersions on the Berenstain Bears or Sonic the Hedgehog,” merely inquiring “into what kinds of books help three- to five-year-olds learn.”

Learn what?  And who gets to decide what they’re learning?

My favourite hysterical headline? “Stop reading Jungle Book and Winnie The Pooh as it 'humanises animals', parents told” from the Express in the U.K.

Why it’s not true

There are two kinds of talking-animal book, and I believe that from the earliest age, kids can tell the difference. 

I’m not a psychologist, or a scientist of any kind, but I am an expert, thanks to my four kids, who have never experienced a moment of confusion about whether Winnie the Pooh or Paddington was exhibiting natural bear behaviour as they pull on their rubber boots, or whether we learn from the Frances books what kind of newspaper real badger fathers read.

So it’s not solid science, but if you listen to the researcher who did the study, she’s spouting some pretty impressive non-science herself:  “The question is whether these inaccurate ideas early on will interfere with the acquisition of knowledge later on.”   That is an interesting question indeed – but it’s not one her study has answered, or even addressed in the most shallow way.

My first question

What do you think I asked first when I found out about this study?  What would you ask first? 

Hopefully, “What books did they use?!?”

The answer was a bit of a disappointment.  They didn’t use real books at all.  “Six picture books were specifically designed for this study, featuring three animals that are unfamiliar to most children: cavies, oxpeckers, and handfish.”

For each animal, the researchers “created” two books (are you starting to get nervous here???):  one anthropomorphic (animals acting like people) and one non-anthropomorphic (animals doing animal stuff).

Luckily, the researchers included samples in the study, so we can get a sense of the gripping literature they’ve created!

The “Literature” used in the study

Here’s the “fantasy” version for the cavy story:

image “Yum, these grass and plants are delicious!” Mother cavy thinks as she eats her breakfast.
“I will feed some to my baby cavies too!” she says.
The baby cavies love to play in the grass! But they’ve gotten all dirty! “Time for your bath,”

Here’s the reality version:

image When the mother cavy wakes up, she usually eats lots of grass and other plants.
Then the mother cavy feeds her baby cavies.
Mother cavy also licks the babies’ fur to keep them clean.

Is it possible that all the researchers ended up testing for is boring kids’ literature???

Seriously… my nine-year-old could and frequently does write more gripping stories, both fiction and non.

Picture books to learn from

I feel particularly sensitive about this issue because for a few years, while we were homeschooling, I was one of many home educators strongly influenced by the principles of Charlotte Mason education, which advocates teaching through “living books,” often story-based, even for usually-boring bits like history and science.

03955396410395266815Often, these are classics like the animal chapter book stories of Thornton Burgess or the anthropomorphic adventures of Holling C. Holling, such as Pagoo (about a hermit crab) and Seabird (a gull).

0395292034And there is no doubt that kids learn from these books – not only solid scientific fact, but also all the lessons that can be learned from great, vivid writing. 

I haven’t yet been able to read either of these two Holling books with my kids, but we did read Paddle-to-the-Sea, about a carved wooden canoe who makes its way through the Great Lakes. 

We all learned a ton of geography along the way, and I hope nobody tries to put together a study showing that it wasn’t “real” geography because an anthropomorphic canoe taught it to us!

0486275655We also read The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse last year, by Thornton Burgess (it’s also free in the public domain), a writer who created many stories around anthropomorphized animals.  His animals wear clothes and speak to each other. 

imageBut they also have realistic adventures in natural settings – getting caught on fences and stuck in brambles, and attacked by natural enemies, like foxes and snakes in Danny’s case. 

Do these books confuse kids?

It’s true that this is not exactly science:  in nature, Granny Fox may not literally be planning a knife-and-fork breakfast around poor injured Danny, and animals don’t really make up songs as they hop around the Smiling Pool in the Green Forest.

Are kids who read these books less likely to grow up to be scientists?  To understand animals?

To me, books like these open the best possible conversations.  If at any point a parent notices their kid is confused, I’m sure they can take care of it in a minute.

Picture books for fun

The other kind of kids’ picture book is what Charlotte Mason herself might have considered “twaddle,” but we consider fun, light reading.

0307021688Like last night, when we sat down and read one of my favourite Little Golden books:  The Tawny Scrawny Lion, by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren.

In this uber-realistic tale (you can tell I’m being sarcastic, right?), a mean scary carnivorous lion is terrorizing the animals of jungle by eating them incessantly… until one day, he is befriended by a sleek, fat rabbi, who takes him home for a nice big bowl carrot stew.

So what’s the takeaway here?  Will children come to believe, if they read this book, that rabbits and lions can become friends after all, if they’re cheerful and naive enough, as is the bunny in the story?

I really, really doubt it.  Certainly, none of my own kids have, nor any of the thousands of kids who have read the story over the years.  Okay, they may temporarily believe that carrots (and a few fish) can satisfy a lion’s cravings, but I don’t think it can really closes their mind to learning something else from a book more clearly fact-based later on.

I think even the youngest child can differentiate between a book that’s “fun” and a book that’s “science,” although perhaps not (as the study shows) if they’re both badly written.

As one Amazon reviewer commented, “The point of the story is how the little rabbit's sincerity and hospitality provoke a change in the predatory lion. It's not a David Attenborough documentary, okay?” 

Our kids know that too.

The Reality

As I’ve said a few times here, in a few different ways, our kids, or the kids we write for, are more intelligent than these researchers give them credit for. 

In particular, they shouldn’t be underestimated just because the people involved in the study didn’t hire a writer the calibre of a Holling C. Holling or Thornton Burgess.

One more thing:  the bells and whistles

I agreed with one thing I read in this study’s report.

Lots of books for very young kids are put out these days with all kinds of bells and whistles – fluffy bits and textured patches, flaps, tabs – literal bells and whistles. 

I have long maintained that these make a book into more of a TOY than a book, and indeed, this study confirms that that seems to be true.

These elements are thought to make books engaging to young children, yet the research so far suggests that manipulative books may not be advantageous for learning.  Studies that compared children’s learning of content from simple, traditional books versus manipulative books have found negative effects of manipulative elements on children’s learning.

In other words, skip the bells, the whistles (but NOT the talking animals!) and make your book a great story, to get kids hooked right from the very first word!.

What do you think of this study?  Do talking animals really keep kids from learning or is it all balderdash, as I suspect?


  1. I can think of only ONE example where a talking animal has led to a misunderstanding of how animals behave, and that is the notion that rabbits eat carrots. In reality, they don't. At least not if given a nice leafy green thing instead. Why do people think rabbits eat carrots? Bugs Bunny. Basically, in creating the character, they developed the carrot munching as shtick. You can read more about it on Wikipedia:

    But I don't think that anyone reading Animal Farm would learn that real animals, if left to their own devices, would overthrow humans and create a totalitarian communist dictatorship.

    1. You're completely right... except for the part about real bunnies and carrots. I dunno about that. Our daughter used to petsit for the next-door neighbours and their bunny Lester really enjoyed a carrot when she came over. He loved other things, too, like parsley. But carrots were definitely in the Top Ten. :-)


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