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What type of kids' books lead to less learning and reasoning about animals?

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Kids’ books featuring animals with human traits lead to less learning of the natural world, says new study, "Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children's knowledge about animals," is published in a recent issue of the online journal Frontiers in Psychology. Should kids read more fantastical or more realistic books when it comes to learning about animals in the natural world?

For example, would a young child learn more reading a children's book about how to train, care for, understand dog communication signals, and how to feed and treat your dog or a fictional/fantastical children's book where dogs talk to one another and/or to humans and think like humans or shape-shift back and forth from dog to human forms?

The study by University of Toronto researchers found that kids’ books featuring animals with human characteristics not only lead to less factual learning but also influence 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, according to the March 25, 2014 news release, "Kids' books featuring animals with human traits lead to less learning of the natural world." Ganea is an 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.”

This study has 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. Books for young children that present animals in fantastical and unrealistic ways, as wearing clothes, talking and engaging in human-like activities show young kids that animals talk and think like people. Researchers wanted to find out how this presentation of animals in books for young children affects how kids perceive animals and how they learn.

Anthropomorphism in children's books and how it affects learning and conceptions of animals

In the study, researchers examined whether anthropomorphism in children’s books affects children’s learning and conceptions of animals, by specifically assessing the impact of depictions (a bird wearing clothes and reading a book) and language (bird described as talking and as having human intentions). In Study 1, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children saw picture books featuring realistic drawings of a novel animal, the study's abstract explains.

Half of the children also heard factual, realistic language, while the other half heard anthropomorphized language. In Study 2, we replicated the first study 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, notes the study's abstract.

If you're writing children's books or reading them to kids, would you then bring up the topic of do animals really talk that way to people? And if anthropomorphized animals in books lead to less learning, as the study reports, what type of children's books are best for increasing the desire to learn more?

Would it be books about how real children arrive at their choices, decisions, or paths to answering questions, solving problems, and other learning experiences suited to the age and development of the child's learning skills? Do children learn more when they read what makes them laugh, what surprises them, or what makes them think about rewards, results, and other consequences of learning--about animals?

Then again, there's always the anthropomorphic comic book characters and video/TV cartoons that attract thousands of children. On another note, you also may want to take a look at the abstract of another study, "The shape of the language-ready brain."

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