“Winnie-the-Pooh hinders children’s ability to learn science.” This headline caught my eye. When I read the article in the Toronto Star (Friday, March 28, 2014, p. L3), I had to comment. I wrote a letter to the editor, and then decided to publish an expanded version here. Two children’s writers, Nnicholas Oldland and J. Timothy Hunt, were quoted in the story, also with objections to the research study. The study itself, for children 3-5 years old, seems flawed right at the beginning. The researches were 4 “experts in child psychology,” including Patricia Ganea, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, the only one named), and they tested the “reading comprehension” of 163 children in Boston and the GTA. Instead of using picture books and other stories by working, professional writers and illustrators, which are often adaptations of traditional tales from various cultures), the researches wrote and illustrated six of their own stories about 3 unusual but existing creatures: cavies, a South American rodent; oxpeckers, a bird; and handfish, a fish that walks on the ocean floor. According to the article, all six stories contained “facts” about these animals, but three also contained “fantasy” elements, such as a talking handfish” — i.e. the animals were “anthromophormosized,” or given human qualities. It has been shown from other studies that children respond better to books and pictures by writers and artists, not ones made for a particular purpose.
Some of the children were read only the “factual” or only the “fantasy” stories, and some were read both. The children were then asked questions about both the facts and the more human, “fantasy” qualities. The researchers found that those who heard the fantasy stories were more likely to believe, for example, that the creatures could talk and had feelings, and had a harder time learning the “facts” about these animals when the stories included some fantasy — or imaginative — elements. Dr. Ganaea commented that the children might confused fact and fantasy, and thus not transfer the “facts” to the so-called “real world.” Thus, the ‘fantasy storybooks” (created by the researchers, mind you — not actual works of creative art, or stories handed down over time) could be “counterproductive for learning “scientifically accurate information about the animal world” and should be “exposed to” more non-fiction books — as if they could be a medication to prevent nasty fantasies.
Keep in mind that these are children 3 to 5 years old, who live and learn through their imaginations, and who are developing their sense of empathy, self-awareness, language, and play. They are not entering the Science Fair or studying for exams. They are, if they are lucky, learning about the natural world by watching ants and butterflies, hearing birds, catching frogs with older siblings, crawling around after their pet cats, and petting the family dog. They are also learning about feelings, interactions between people, and how the world works. And they often do this by identifying with the animals in the stories. The story is both distant enough to be imaginative, and real enough on an emotional level to teach the child in a non-pedantic way. For example, a child will learn a lot from the little tortoise in “The Name of the Tree,” who remembers her grandmother’s advice and slowly but carefully helps the starving animals find the solution to their problem, when bigger animals have failed: how to find the name of a certain tree so they can eat its fruits
My mind boggles at what this “research study” has to say about raising children, about the role of story and art, and about the nature of what is “real.” I am a mother of an adult son, a writer for children and adults, a psychotherapist, and someone who teaches creative writing to both children and adults. I have also read widely and heard discussions about the importance of stories, including fairy tales, myths, legends, “folk tales”, and other stories in which animals can play an important role. Teaching young children only “facts” deprives them of so much real learning, and gives them a very narrow view of the world. In Aboriginal stories, for example — often used as teaching stories for people of all ages, children and adults (the same story may well have a different message for people of different ages. at different times in the life-cycle). Animals play a crucial role: Raven can be a helper, as in restoring light to the world, but also a trickster; Coyote is a trickster, other animals including Frogs can provide important life-lessons. The history of literature is full of meaningful animal stories: what about Aesop’s fables – the Tortoise and the Hare, the Fox and the Grapes, etc.? Tales like “The Three Little Pigs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and others of that nature; novels like “The Wind in the Willows” and “Black Beauty;” the Brer Rabbit tales; Winnie-the-Pooh, West African tales of Anansi the Spider; Chinese stories about tigers and other creatures (dragons, too, but dragons are definitely not “real” according to the researchers. In modern writing, we have E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” Maurice Sendak’s “Little Bear,” Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad,” Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (mentioned in the article), Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat” and “Horton Hears a Who,” C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe;” the sensitive African story retold by Celia Lotteridge and others, “The Name of the Tree.” Margaret Laurence wrote a children’s book about moles and other creatures called “Jason’s Quest, ” which had messages — told in the form of story — about overcoming fear, being creative, and working together. The list goes on and on. And what about adult fiction – we all know Moby Dick, and then there is Richard Parker in “The Life of Pi.” These creatures sometimes take on larger than life significance, and may show the connections — and breaks — between human beings and the natural world.
I read, loved, and cried over some of these books as a child, my son read them, parents, grandparents, and teachers have read and told these stories for ages. These stories stay with us, beloved, retold, and remembered, for a life-time — for good reason. Especially for very young children, age 3 to 5 – the subject of this study – stories open their imaginations and teach them love of nature and the natural world, as well as ways to behave, relate, and empathize with others and with oneself. Children identify with the emotional qualities of the animals, while still keeping the story in an imaginative sphere so they can absorb it more easily. A young child can easily identify with a young tortoise who believes in herself and knows the solution to a problem, even when bigger animals says she can’t do it. When children are under 5, their minds are usually not able to distinguish clearly between “fact” and “imagination,” the kind of objective thinking which according to French psychologist Piaget develops around age 7 and after. So if we want children to learn naturalistic facts about animals, we should wait until they are in grade two or three and higher. My son, like most children who are allowed to play (including dramatic role-play) and to hear and read stories, had no trouble distinguishing between animal characters and actual animals living on earth, when he was ready to start making these distinctions.
It is, I think, important to let children have experience seeing some animals in nature to understand what actual animals are like (an experience many children today are sadly lacking). They can then read and see films about animals not in their geographic area (e.g. lions, tigers, polar bears) and become more curious about their lives and habits. Speaking of polar bears, many kids understand how global warming is affecting these animals’ environment in the “real world.” Finally, most good authors do create some sense of an animal’s own reality and nature; they are not just anthropomorphic cartoon characters. Thus, they may create a good foundation for more scientific learning: a child who has come to love Charlotte may want to find out more about all kinds of spiders, their webs, and their eggs. As Charlotte might write, “Terrific!” (using her dry thread, not her sticky one — a “fact” that White cunningly introduces into his story not for its own sake but because it has a meaning: the bugs won’t stick to the sticky threads and make the word illegible. But now we know spiders have at least two kinds of thread.).
Stories pass on family, cultural, and human values, especially when loving adults share them with the children in their care. This is what should come first in listening to stories and in reading, before (in John Keats’ words) any “irritable searching after fact and reason.” Should we – taking this to its logical conclusion – eliminate the story “The Little Engine that Could” because children might think the VIA and GO trains can also think and talk?
Next Blog: Mark Twain said “Some of the worst things in my life didn’t happen.” A perfect description of anxiety. Don’t worry — we’ll get to this subject soon.