What Do Preschoolers Learn from Fantastical Picture Books?

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One of the new picture books making the bedtime rounds at our house is How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?, which describes and depicts dinosaurs doing such un-dinosaurly things as tucking themselves into bed or kissing their human mothers good night. The book is whimsical, gorgeously illustrated, and includes a scientific angle, as the genus names of the dinosaurs are included in the pictures. I’m always careful to read these genus names aloud as we look at each picture. But is this book actually teaching my daughter anything about dinosaurs? And does the misinformation get in the way of her learning these facts? A new study suggests that it might.

Picture books that anthropomorphize animals – and even inanimate objects – are the norm rather than the exception. These books are whimsical and fanciful. They depict worlds like our own but different in magical ways that delight children and adults alike. Perhaps these books are more engaging for young children, fostering lifelong reading habits. Perhaps they stimulate a child’s blossoming imagination. Perhaps – although I would argue that the true story of our diverse, teeming planet is more remarkable than talking teddy bears or hippos in swimsuits.

Look at it this way: everything we do is meant to prepare our children for life in this complex and befuddling world. Why, then, do we feed them so much distorted, inaccurate information? How are they supposed to know what is real and what is fantasy? How is my daughter supposed to know that the three-horned dinosaur was called Triceratops but that it never coexisted with humans nor stomped on its hind legs to protest bedtime?

Researchers in Boston and Toronto looked into this issue and recently published their findings in Frontiers in Psychology. The scientists created picture books based on three animals species that are relatively unknown among North American children: cavies, oxpeckers, and handfish. Their study consisted of two separate experiments. For the first experiment, all of the books featured factual illustrations of the animals, but for each animal the authors made one version of the book with realistic text and one version with text that depicted the animals as human-like. Here are two examples:

Lonely cavy seeks companionship and good conversation.

Lonely cavy seeks companionship and good conversation.

Realistic
When the mother cavy wakes up, she usually eats lots of grass and other plants.
Then the mother cavy feeds her baby cavies.
Mother cavy also licks the babies’ fur to keep them clean.
Mother cavy and her babies spend the rest of the day lying in the sun.
At night, they sleep in a small cave.
After they go to sleep, mother cavy’s big ears help her hear noises around her.

Anthropomorphic
“Yum, those grass and plants are delicious!” Mother cavy thinks as she eats her breakfast.
“I will feed some to my baby cavies too!” she says.
The baby cavies love to play in the grass! But they’ve gotten all dirty! “Time for your bath,” Mother cavy says.
Mother cavy and her babies like to spend the afternoon sunbathing.
At night, Mother cavy tucks her babies in to bed in a small cave. “Mom, I’m scared!” says the baby cavy.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says. “I’ll listen for noises with my big ears and keep us safe.”

Children ages 3 to 5 years old were randomly assigned to read the books with either the factual or fantasy text. After children read one of these books with an experimenter, a second experimenter showed them a picture of the real animal described the story and asked the kids questions about it. Do cavies eat grass? Do cavies talk? Some of these questions tested the factual information kids took away from the picture book, while others tested how much the children anthropomorphized the animal. The children who read the books with talking animals were more likely to say those animals really talk than were children who read the versions with factual text. Still, the two groups were roughly equal in the factual information they retained about the animals.

Oxpeckers ready for adventure.

Oxpeckers ready for adventure.

For the second experiment, the researchers again made two versions of picture books for each animal. This time, both versions showed the animals dressed in clothes, sitting at tables, or engaged in other human activities. As before, the researchers made two versions of each book: one with factual text and one that anthropomorphized the animals. The children who read the fully anthropomorphized picture books tended to believe that the animals really engage in human behaviors like speech. These kids also answered fewer factual questions about the animals correctly (compared with the children who read factual text paired with the fantastical pictures).

These findings have two major implications. First, picture books that anthropomorphize animals seem to actually teach children that animals think and behave like humans. In one sense you might say this is good, as it could discourage animal cruelty and abuse. But in another sense, it’s highly unproductive. At the very best, children will have to unlearn all of this nonsense. At worst, they will carry some of this misinformation about the natural world throughout life – probably not as a belief in talking animals, but in the assumptions they make about the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of other species.

The other takeaway is that the whimsical aspects of a picture book may be sabotaging your child’s learning of the real information in these stories, particularly when the illustrations and text both reflect fantasy.  Since children can’t conclusively tell fact from fiction, some may be discounting all information from highly fanciful stories – including incredible-yet-true facts like the chameleon’s mercurial skin tone or the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly. As the authors write in their paper: “if the goal of the picture book interaction is to teach children information about the world, it is best to use books that depict the world in a realistic rather than fantastical manner.” Of course that takes enthusiasm out of the equation. What kid would sit for hours watching videos of real trains when he or she could watch Thomas? Human narrative adds interest, but it also seems to muddle up real learning, at least in preschoolers.

I hate to build an argument against imaginative, fanciful picture books. What am I, Scrooge? But while I love imagination, I don’t love misinformation – particularly scientific misinformation. And while I love magic, I don’t love magical thinking or flawed reasoning about the natural world. I’m not saying you should throw away your copy of Goodnight Moon and all things Sandra Boynton – just keep in mind that wee ones don’t always know real from fanciful or facetious. Talk about these concepts with them. Buy some nonfiction picture books with accurate information about animals and keep them in the lineup. And know that, for all your efforts, they may come away believing that trains talk and bunnies knit . . . at least for now.

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Photo credits:  Mother and child by KatLevPhoto, cropped for use here; cavy by Brent Moore; oxpeckers by Steve Garvie. All used via Creative Commons license

Ganea, P., Canfield, C., Simons Ghafari, K., & Chou, T. (2014). Do cavies talk? The effect of anthropomorphic picture books on children’s knowledge about animals Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00283

It’s a Zoo Out There!

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Our house is filled with animals. We’ve got animal rattles, animal teethers, stuffed animals and all manner of animal-patterned clothing, towels, and bedding. Then of course there are the board books; those that don’t name animals and list their moos and oinks star bipedal animals that brush their teeth, wear pajamas, and often suffer crushing insecurities. And we’re not talking about your standard cat, dog or hamster. They are usually elephants. Giraffes. Hippopotami. Animals you don’t see cruising down the street on an ordinary day. They are animals you’d probably never see in person if not for your local zoo.

The exotic menagerie that has descended on our house has got me wondering: why do we surround our children with animals that will have no discernible role in their future lives? Why aren’t there more infant toys based on tax returns or grocery lists? Where are the books with titles like The Grumpy Morning Commute or Fruit Salad Makes a Friend? I imagine the reason we supply young children with all-things-animal is because that’s what they like. That’s what fascinates them. And who can blame them? From the elephant’s trunk to the lightning bug’s glow, the odd, diverse traits of other species are just about the neatest show on this planet of ours. It’s a fact we lose sight of as we get older. Giraffes are old news to us now. They’ve got super long necks. So what? Big deal.

This past week, however, I noticed my husband checking his iPhone with unusual glee. Had I heard? The new Mars rover landed without a hitch. Against all odds! And now it’s looking for signs of past or present life on Mars. How cool is that? As a scientist, I have to admit it’s pretty cool. But I can’t get as excited as my husband. It seems odd that we are investing so much to seek out microscopic life on another planet while there are still species here on Earth we have yet to discover. And while our own actions drive other species to extinction.

Clearly, we’ve forgotten how beautiful and strange and remarkable animals are. Perhaps we should re-brand them for adults. Maybe market them as aliens. If we found a cell on Mars (not to mention a roach or a mouse) we would go wild with excitement. Just imagine if the Curiosity rover found something as elegant as a jellyfish, as colorful as a peacock, or as chatty as a wise old humpback. Imagine how cool that would be.

I will have a chance to try this idea out sometime soon, as my new house in Michigan is near a big zoo. My husband and I have been meaning to go there ever since our move, not to see the animals ourselves but to witness our daughter’s reaction to them. Now I have a second reason to go. When we’re there, I’ll try to view the creatures as they might look to my daughter, who will be seeing them for the very first time. I’ll try to think of them as new and fantastic aliens that just so happen to live here on earth.

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Photo credit: Doug Kukurudza

Say What?!

Although I grew up outside of Chicago, I’ve spent the last decade split between the East and West Coasts. Now, after 5 years in Los Angeles, my husband and I are settling into life as Michiganders. Aside from the longer days and lower cost of living, the biggest differences I’ve noticed are linguistic. People speak differently here, and for me it’s like coming home. After a decade away, I am back in a state where people drink pop instead of soda. And, at long last, I’ve returned to the land of the Northern City Vowel Shift.

Speech is constantly in flux, whether or not we are aware of it. Regional dialects diverge, giving us the drawls of the South and the dropped r’s of the Northeast. More recently, cities in a large swath of the northern Midwest are reinventing their vowels, especially the short vowels in ben, bin, and ban. From Syracuse to Minneapolis, Green Bay to Cleveland, these vowels have been changing among Caucasian native English speakers. The vowels are now pronounced with a different positioning of the tongue, in some cases dramatically altering the sound of the vowel. A wonderful NPR interview on the subject is available online in audio form and includes examples of these vowel changes.

I must have picked up the Northern City vowels growing up near Chicago. When I arrived in Boston for graduate school, friends poked fun at my subtle accent. They loved to hear me talk about my can-tact lenses. And I can’t blame them for teasing me. The dialect can sound pretty absurd, especially when pushed to the extreme. It was probably best parodied by George Wendt and the SNL cast in the long-running Super Fans sketch.

I have long been in love with the field of phonetics and phonology, or how we produce and perceive speech sounds. Creating and understanding speech are two truly impressive (and often underappreciated) feats. Each time we speak, we must move our tongues, lips, teeth and vocal folds in precise and dynamic ways to produce complex acoustical resonances. And whenever we listen, we must deconstruct the multifaceted spectral signatures of speech sounds to translate them into what we perceive as simple vowels, consonants, syllables. We do all of that without a single conscious thought – leaving our minds free to focus on the informational content of our conversations, be they about astrophysics or Tom and Katie’s breakup.

Experiences in the first couple years of life are critical for our phonetic and phonological development. Details of the local dialect are incorporated into our speech patterns early in life and can be hard to change later on. As a result, everyone’s speech is littered with telltale signs of their regional origins. My mother and aunt spent their early years in a region of Kansas where the vowels in pen and pin were pronounced the same. To this day, they neither say nor hear them as different. Imagine the trouble my mother had when she worked with both a Jenny and Ginny. I’ve noticed major differences between my husband’s dialect and my own as well. My husband, a native Angeleno, pronounces the word dew as dyoo, while I pronounce it as doo because in Chicago the vowels yoo and oo have merged.

These days I’m watching phonetic development from a front-row seat. My baby has been babbling for a while and I’ve watched as she practiced using her new little vocal tract. She would vocalize as she moved her tongue all around her open mouth and presumably learned how the sound changed with it. From shrieks to gasps to blowing raspberries, she tested the range of noises her vocal tract could create.  And as she hones in on the spoken sounds she hears, her babbling has become remarkably speech-like. The consonants and vowels are mixed up in haphazard combinations, but they are English consonants and vowels all right. Through months of experimentation, mimicry, and practice, she has learned where to put her tongue, how far to open her mouth, and how to shape her lips to create the sounds that are the building blocks of our language. And just as she was figuring it out, we went and moved her smack into a different dialect. She will have to muddle through and learn to speak all the same. And once that happens, it will be interesting to see where her sweet little vowels end up.

On Nano-Naps and Dreamscapes

New mothers must be collectors of broken sleep, eagerly taking a sliver here, a shard there – whatever they can get.

Now that my baby is four months old, she’s finally sleeping at night. Still, she wakes me every two hours to nurse. She is half asleep while she feeds and I am always nodding off. In the few seconds it takes for my sinking head or my nursing baby to summon me back, I’ll have a momentary dream. A micro-dream. A nano-nap. No more intricate dreams of forgetting to do my homework or going to prom in a maternity dress. These dreams are all business: snapshots of everyday life. Once it may be a view of my husband lifting the baby out of her crib. Another time, I glimpse a lump in bed beside me and realize it’s my baby buried in our blankets (a terrifying dream.) But usually I simply dream that she’s nursing. A dream of mere reality: no more, no less.

How do I even know that I’m dreaming? The details are off. And in these cases, the switch from dreaming to wakefulness can be particularly strange. Once the transition felt as seamless as a change of camera shots in a television show. One moment I was looking down at my nursing baby; the next, she was flipped (mirror-reversed) in my arms and her head was noticeably smaller! Never before have I had such an immediate comparison between the mind’s eye and the naked eye, nor realized how very similar they feel. And never before have I had such uninventive, literal dreams. It’s as if I can’t muster the energy to dream up anything better.

In the face of my lackluster dreaming, I am all the more fascinated by the rich dream life of my daughter. From the day she was born I’ve watched her smile, pout, and wince and heard her scream and giggle madly in her sleep. In fact, she smiled in her sleep months before she gave us her first waking smile. Physicians have observed rapid eye movements in fetuses, suggesting that babies dream in the womb. But what are they dreaming of? Is it limited to what they know: heartbeats and jostling and amniotic fluid? Or perhaps their dreams are wilder than our own, unconstrained by the realities of life on this earth. After all, the infant brain contains legions of unpruned synapses and far more neurons than that of an adult. Who’s to say what sort of fantasy it might come up with?

Whatever sort of dreams a newborn has, we don’t remember them as adults. By late infancy, we’ve already pruned enough synapses and experienced enough of the world to have a basic vocabulary for our dreams. An adult’s dream may create some odd combinations – eyeballs growing on trees or hats that unfurl into snakes – but the vocabulary, the unitary elements, are fixed. Eyeballs, trees, hats, snakes. Grow, unfurl. Our potential dreamscapes are wholly constrained by the details of our waking existence.

As my baby examines new places and things, I am reminded that she’s cobbling together her own vocabulary of the world. She will store away sensations, objects, creatures, actions, concepts, cultures, and myths. A knowledge that the sun shines from above and plants sprout from below. That rivers run and lakes loiter. That caterpillars turn into butterflies and never the other way around. For better or for worse, her future dreams will be shaped by the idiosyncrasies of our funny little world.

Dumb Kids

I had an unpleasant experience in the car today. For the first time, I listened carefully to the lyrics of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. You know, the one requested by brown eyed girls everywhere and played at dances as a romantic upbeat song. I could sing all of the lyrics, but had never really listened to what I was singing.

Here’s the last verse:

So hard to find my way,
Now that I’m all on my own.
I saw you just the other day,
My, how you have grown!
Cast my memory back there, Lord
Sometimes I’m overcome thinkin’ ‘bout
Makin’ love in the green grass
Behind the stadium
With you, my brown eyed girl
You my brown eyed girl.

It’s a break up song! Some of you may have known this, but my fiancé and I were shocked and saddened. He said I’d ruined the song for him. We moved it to a different, sadder playlist. How could we have sung lyrics we’d never even listened to?

I had a similar discovery about the 80’s song Second Chance by 38 Special. The clearly-enunciated bridge contains the following lyrics:

I never loved her
I never needed her
She was willing and that’s all there is to say.
Don’t forsake me;
Please don’t leave me now.

She was willing? The song went from nostalgic to disturbing. I still listen to it, but with much less glee.

It’s true of movies too. I knew all of the lines to The Breakfast Club growing up but didn’t realize until adulthood that it wasn’t cigarettes they were smoking and that they didn’t get silly just because they’d become friends. And I didn’t figure out that there was an abortion in Dirty Dancing until years afterward.

It got me to wondering: how could I have loved these movies and learned the lyrics to these songs without understanding what they were about? And not even understanding that I didn’t understand?

It occurs to me that kids can’t get too hung up on what they don’t understand. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy most of what they saw or heard. They make sense of what they can and move on, oblivious and happy. That’s why Disney can sneak adult humor into movies without children noticing. And that’s why it wasn’t until today, in the car, that I learned the truth about the brown eyed girl.

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