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Trending Science: Sorry Aesop, humans have more impact than animals in children’s parables

New Canadian research has found that children’s books featuring animals are not as effective at transmitting moral behaviour to children, finding instead that the way to teach youngsters about ethics and morality issues is to use books populated by human characters.
Trending Science: Sorry Aesop, humans have more impact than animals in children’s parables
In the study, carried out at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), researchers read one of three stories to almost 100 children between four and six years old. One book featured anthromorphic animals that learn that sharing makes you feel good, the second was a version of the same story but the animals were replaced with human characters, and finally a control book about seeds.

Before being read the story, the children chose 10 stickers to take home and were told that an anonymous child would not have any stickers to take home. The children were told that they could donate their stickers to the anonymous child by placing them in an envelope when the researcher wasn’t looking. The children were given two opportunities to do this – once before the story was read to them, and once after.

To their surprise, the research team found that children who were read the story featuring human characters were more generous with giving away their stickers than those who were read the story in which animals carried a moral message or the control book. There was no difference in generosity between the children who read the book with animals as the characters and those who read the seed book.

Patricia Ganea, an associate professor of early cognitive development at OISE commented: ‘A growing body of research has shown that young children more readily apply what they’ve learned from stories that are realistic (…) this is the first time we found something similar for social behaviours (…) the findings are surprising given that many stories for young children have human-like animals.’

Of course, the question whether the impact animal characters expressing a learning process when engaged in every-day challenges may vary according to the quality of the writing, a cultural context or a child's age still remains open. However,
this new evidence is worth considering when thinking about children’s literature which has the imparting of ethics as its objective. ‘We tell stories to children for many reasons, and if the goal is to teach them a moral lesson then one way to make the lesson more accessible to children is to use human characters,’ commented Prof Ganea. ‘The message is not that we should not read fantasy books to our children – those are wonderful books, and great literature that children should certainly be exposed to.’

Children’s books are dominated by anthromorphic animal characters (your writer’s personal childhood favourite being Paddington Bear, who came from deepest darkest Peru) and a 2002 review of 1 000 children’s books found that more than half featured animals, the vast majority of which did not portray the animals realistically. While books such as these are adored by children and parents alike, and have a valued place in a child’s literary exploration, if the main goal of the story is to impart some life-lesson or other, it might be that some children will recognise a human model better than one portrayed by a badger. Where characters that are neither human nor animal, such as the Moomins fit into the picture is yet to be discovered.

Ganea believes that expanding the range of human characters within children’s books, to represent different genders and ethnicities to let children recognise themselves within the narrative, is central to engagement. Although for anyone who has read and re read a child's favourite book will know, a child's imagination meeting great writing and illustration is a potent mix whatever the message.

Source: Based on media reports

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