Some of the best children’s books out there have animal main characters: Winnie the Pooh, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Jungle Book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the Story of Ferdinand. Same with fiction for slightly older kids—books that build mouse fortresses and make spiders talk. But a study published this week in the journal Frontiers in Psychology warns that stories in which animals behave like humans can distort a child’s view of the natural world.
Researchers led by the University of Toronto’s Patricia Ganea found that kids exposed to fanciful language about novel species (oxpeckers, handfish, and guinea pig-type critters called cavies) absorbed fewer facts about those species than kids who read realistic descriptions. “Our work suggests if you want to establish foundations for a more accurate scientific understanding of the world early on,” Ganea told National Geographic, “you use factual books.”
This is in part, the researchers say, because kids compartmentalize fantasy and reality: “Children are sensitive to whether the structure of the story world resembles the structure of the real world, and their learning is disrupted if content information is portrayed in a ‘far’ fantastical context.” That strikes me as a pretty narrow use of the word “learning.” Sometimes, an overly anthropomorphic view of animals can be harmful, as when people get mauled by bears because they regard them as cuddly human friends in bear suits. But to the extent that humanized characters are both more accessible to and more likely to inspire empathy in young readers, I don’t see how they could be construed as bad for kids, the animal kingdom, or even science.
Scaffolding familiar traits onto alien subjects is a powerful way to promote learning, one that children do naturally from the age of 12 to 24 months. And imaginative play—the type where you pretend a badger gets jealous of her baby sister—has cognitive benefits: “If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Just as important, anthropomorphizing is a type of metaphor-making that allows kids to both identify with the characters they’re reading about (so that they more readily apply the text’s lessons to their own life, as in an Aesop’s fable) and practice acknowledging outside perspectives. Reading literature fosters empathy, found two separate studies, one at the New School and one in the Netherlands, and it does so by awakening people to the echoes of themselves in others.
But the worst part about this study? It conflates truth and data with the same infuriating nonchalance that fuels thousands of 2 a.m. debates between science and humanities majors in college. Ganea and her team advance the tautological claim that we should surround kids with fact-based animal portraits lest they develop conceptions of animals that are not fact-based. I would much rather my kindergartener develop an emotional and imaginative understanding of animals that leads him to see the oxpecker and the cavies as conscious creatures deserving of his stewardship and respect. He can fill in the details about how handfish feed on shellfish later—those data aren’t going anywhere.