Bunnies or Rabbits; Science challenges whimsy

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I think one of the nicer things that the children’s books do is to anthropomorphize animals.  By making rabbits, ducks, bears and even pigs talk, walk and fly, we are able to provide children with a giggle, some warmth and a soft entry into the wild.

That was why I had to write about a study conducted on the impact that walking and talking animals have on kids perceptions of real animals.  The study, entitled “Do cavies talk? The effect of anthropomorphic picture books on children's knowledge about animals,” was written up in Frontiers in Psychology

Here are the opening sentences:

Many books for young children present animals in fantastical and unrealistic ways, such as wearing clothes, talking and engaging in human-like activities. This research 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).

And here is the result:

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.

Let me begin by saying:  They are right.  “A bird wearing clothes and reading a book” will cause a child to misunderstand birds in the wild.  I know that I, as many of you, have attempted to begin conversations with any number of birds wearing clothes only to find, to our astonishment, that they can only “tweet”.

I am sure that this study is well-intentioned and strongly researched.  I do wonder why we want to take away the delights of childhood (and adulthood for that matter) in exchange for an early entry into the real world of animals with bloody tooth and claw.


Most of us do not live, fortunately, in the world of Little Red Riding Hood where wild animals were a very real and very present danger.  So, let’s let kids enjoy the brief fantasy of a world in which ducks wear hats and chickens have “real” jobs.  It makes us smile.




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