Family life

Kids' books starring animals: Harmful or helpful?

A new study suggests that books featuring cartoon animals have a negative impact on children, but Jennifer Pinarski thinks that books aren’t to blame.

Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

One of my children’s favourite books is Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever, and the tale that gets the most giggles is the story of Schtoompah, an Austrian bear who wears a tuba on his head and rides his bicycle backward. The reason they find Schtoompah funny is that, in his story, he loses his tuba in his messy house, and when he finds it again it’s so full of household oddities that he can’t play in the Saturday night band concert. Schtoompah’s house is a lot like our house—yes, bears and dented tubas and all. I am sure the reason they love this story is for that reason—and because the story itself is very silly, of course.

My kids know that in real life bears don’t wear pants or play tubas, that turtles can’t tie shoelaces and that cats don’t wear hats. However, new research out of the University of Toronto suggests that reading books that attribute human qualities to animals may have a negative impact on young children.

Read more: Kids’ books we love 2014>

The study, led by University of Toronto assistant professor Dr. Patricia Ganea along with colleagues from the U of T, Boston University and Florida International University, conducted testing on two groups of children—one in Boston and one in Toronto. One group of children were read books in which animals were given human qualities, whereas the second group were read books in which animals were presented in their natural environments. Children in the study group were ages three to five.

The researchers found that kids’ books featuring animals with human characteristics led to less factual learning and influenced children’s reasoning about animals, as young readers were more likely to attribute human behaviours and emotions to animals when exposed to books with humanized animals than books depicting animals realistically. The risk, says Ganea, is that children may be influenced to adopt a human-centred view of the animal world.

“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,” said Ganea in a press release.

Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>

The researchers of this study advise parents and teachers to consider reading a variety of nonfiction books with kids, and to use factual language when describing the natural world to young children. In addition, The Globe and Mail writer Tralee Pearce has wondered whether the decline in depictions of nature in children’s books (as discovered in a 2012 study) is causing children to care less about the natural world around them.

But is a humanized view of animals really a bad thing? And what happened to wanting children to use their imaginations? And, of course, what happened to getting kids outside to experience the natural world, rather than relying on books to do it for them?

In my opinion, it’s all about balance, just like Ganea and Pearce say. I don’t think the study findings are dire enough to make parents want to shelve their beloved classics (like Richard Scarry). Besides, the study’s subjects were three to five years old, ages at which kids’ imaginations dream up all sorts of wonderful things. Magical worlds filled with talking animals—sometimes starring the critters in our backyard that my own kids have caught or observed—have helped shaped my children’s view of the “real” world. Stories which include humanized animals have made them more compassionate toward wildlife and farm animals, which is a character trait I’m proud my kids have developed.

Like I said, it’s all about balance. Oh, and my kids’ second favourite bedtime story book? The Ontario Nature Guide.

What are your kids’ favourite storybooks starring animals?

FILED UNDER: