Have kids who are into Franklin and Arthur? Many parents will tell you they are grateful popular these kinds of educational books for their children.
But how much are young boys and girls learning from these talking turtle and aardvark protagonists? A recent study from the University of Toronto has concluded it’s not enough.
U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) says children learn valuable lessons, such as telling the truth and sharing, best from humans, and when it involves cute animals, can often miss the mark.
The study found four to six year-olds learn moral lessons most effectively with human characters compared to human-like animals or anthropomorphic characters.
Children enrolled in the study listened to either a story with humans or human-like animals, and their altruistic giving was assessed before and after the reading.
“Overall, children were more likely to act on the moral of the story when it featured a human character,” Patricia Ganea, associate professor of early cognitive development at OISE who was a lead researcher of the study says. “That’s because many kids don’t see these characters as similar to themselves. They’re less likely to translate social lessons from these stories into their everyday lives.”
She added it’s important because so much of children’s media, including books, movies, and video games, incorporate human-like animals. And the results stress how storybooks can have an immediate impact on their social behaviour, Ganea notes.
“Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives,” said Ganea. “It is important for educators and parents to choose carefully when the goal is to teach real-world knowledge and social behaviours through storybooks.”
“The more a child attributed human characteristics to the anthropomorphic animals, the more they shared after reading the animal book,” the researchers found.
Children did not prefer one type of book over the other,” says U of T News.
In a 2014 U of T article, Ganea explained her thoughts on why countless children’s books, especially those with pictures, use anthropomorphized animals.
“It probably has to do with the assumption that children find animals interesting and that content that is depicted using animals may be more entertaining for young children,” she said. “It may also have to do with the idea that young children are going to identify more with the characters in books if they wear clothes, have names and behave like humans.”
The subject is not a new one.
In her 1950 thesis “Animal stories for children and the use of animal characters in children’s literature”, noted children’s educator Merrilie Mather defended the use of animal characters in kids books.
“Animals are extremely important to children’s books,” Mather argued. “They give children a sense of stability and changelessness in a changing, confusing world, both because animals change far less rapidly in time than we do and because they are members of a natural order full of beauty and spirituality. Furthermore, animals, who are (in children’s books) frequently merely humans in disguise, bring human ideals to children. Emotionally appealing, they also teach children about the value of all good personality and all life.”
Anyone brought up on Mickey, Donald, and Goofy will heartily concur. Wait, what is Goofy?