No more animals in storybooks? Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans

To you remember Watership Down? I bet – if you are as old as me – you are now humming that tune. A new study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic (human-like) animals. It is a randomized controlled trial with 3 groups of in total 96 participating children.

Overall, the researchers found:

  • Children ages 4 to 6 read either a book about sharing with human characters, a book about sharing with anthropomorphic animal
    characters, or a control book about seeds.
  • Reading the human story significantly increased preschoolers’ altruistic giving but reading the anthropomorphic story or the
    control story decreased it.
  • Children in the anthropomorphic condition who were more likely to categorize the animal characters as humans than as animals were
    more likely to share at post-test.
  • Storybooks with human characters can better promote children’s prosocial behaviors.

From the press release:

The findings are noteworthy since so much of children’s media– books, movies, video games, etc.– use human-like animal characters. But since many children in this study did not see these characters as similar to themselves, researchers say they may be less likely to translate social lessons from these stories into their everyday lives.

“These findings add to a growing body of research showing that children find it easier to apply knowledge from stories that are realistic,” said Dr. Patricia Ganea, Associate Professor of early cognitive development at OISE, University of Toronto. “Overall, children were more likely to act on the moral of the story when it featured a human character.”

Human versus human-like animal characters

In the study, children listened to a story with either human or human-like animal characters who spoke and wore clothes. Each book taught children about sharing with others. Children’s altruistic giving was assessed before and after the reading.

Overall, preschoolers shared more after listening to the book with humans. Children who were read the book with animal characters shared less after the reading.

Researchers assessed whether children viewed anthropmorphic animal characters as human or not. Most children said these animals lacked human characteristics. Of the children who read the animal book, those who attributed human characteristics to anthropomorphic animals shared more after reading. Researchers say one of the reasons some children did not act generously may have been because they did not interpret the anthropomorphic animals as similar to themselves.

Books with realistic characters lead to better learning

Dr. Ganea says the results highlight that storybooks can have an immediate impact on children’s social behaviour.

“Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives,” she said. “It is important for educators and parents to choose carefully when the goal is to teach real-world knowledge and social behaviours through storybooks.”

Nicole Larsen, who worked with Dr. Ganea on the study as part of her master’s degree, agreed, noting, “Parents can play an important role in children’s learning by asking them to explain parts of the story and helping them see the similarity between the story and their own lives.”

Children’s sharing tested

In the study, children first had a chance to share some of their 10 stickers with another child. They were then read one of three books: a book about sharing with human characters; the same book with anthropomorphic animal characters; or a book about seeds. This book was used to check how sharing changed when the story did not involve sharing. After the reading, children had another chance to give away new stickers. The number of stickers shared provided a measure of children’s altruistic giving.

Children were also asked to categorize different pictures of human, anthropomorphic, and realistic animals with either human traits or animal traits.

To see if a story with animal characters is more appealing to young children, the researchers asked the children who read the seeds book to choose between the human and animal books.

Abstract of the study:

For millennia, adults have told children stories not only to entertain but also to impart important moral lessons to promote prosocial behaviors. Many such stories contain anthropomorphized animals because it is believed that children learn from anthropomorphic stories as effectively, if not better than, from stories with human characters, and thus are more inclined to act according to the moral lessons of the stories. Here we experimentally tested this belief by reading preschoolers a sharing story with either human characters or anthropomorphized animal characters. Reading the human story significantly increased preschoolers’ altruistic giving but reading the anthropomorphic story or a control story decreased it. Thus, contrary to the common belief, realistic stories, not anthropomorphic ones, are better for promoting young children’s prosocial behavior.

 

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One response to “No more animals in storybooks? Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans

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