Is Mickey Mouse making your child DUMB? Animal characters that wear clothes or talk ‘damage learning’, claims study

Many parents assume that children’s cartoons and books are harmless fun and help them learn.

But psychologists claim that Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and Rupert Bear may be bad for children’s learning because animals do not talk or wear human clothes in real life.

The controversial study suggests books, in particular, which feature animals with human characteristics lead to ‘less factual learning’ among children aged five and under.

But from Watership Down to The Gruffalo, the study will outrage millions of parents who grew up on such stories or read them to their own children today.

Researchers from Toronto University’s Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development said children need to read more factual books about the natural world.

Reading books that show animals talking or wearing clothes leads youngsters to think animals are like that in real life, claimed psychologist Professor Patricia Ganea.

This affects a child’s ability to learn real facts in general and their knowledge of animals and the natural world in particular, she said.

Researchers conducted tests on children aged between three and five by reading factual animal books to some and literature giving animals human characteristics – known as anthropomorphism – to others.

They were then tested on their knowledge of wildlife and those who had heard stories about talking animals were more likely to think real animals could talk, the psychologists said.

‘Books that portray animals realistically lead to more learning and more accurate biological understanding,’ said Professor Ganea.

‘We were surprised to find that even the older children in our study were sensitive to the anthropocentric portrayals of animals in the books and attributed more human characteristics to animals after being exposed to fantastical books than after being exposed to realistic books.’

Talking animals have featured in books going back to Aesop’s fables in Ancient Greece through to fairytales, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears to modern classics like Charlotte’s Web.

There is also a more recent rich culture of films and TV shows for children in which animals walk, talk, wear clothes and have other human characteristics, particularly Disney cartoons.

Professor Ganea said she did not want to stop parents reading these books to children but to add books with more realistic interpretations of animals as well.

Her report, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, said: ‘(We) advise parents and teachers to consider using a variety of informational and nonfiction books, and to use factual language when describing the biological world to young children.

‘Children’s books that feature talking animals, or animals displaying other human characteristics, like wearing clothes, lead to less realistic understandings of the natural world.

‘Such books not only inhibit specific, factual learning but also interfere with children’s abstract thinking and conceptual reasoning about animals.’

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