Lions and Tigers and Surfing Bears? How Babies Learn from Books

This morning, I stumbled upon a delightful scene: my baby with his nose in a book. Literally. Like his nose was touching the pages of the Babyface book he was consuming. I’ve hoped to cultivate a lifelong love of reading, but how early can babies learn about the world from books and stories?

Turns out, it starts young. A study out last month in Child Development shows that babies start to connect pictures to things in the real world at around 9 months. The researchers tested babies with a real-size picture of a toy. Then they presented the tots with the actual toy, alongside another the babies hadn't yet seen. The babies reached for the one they hadn't seen in the picture, showing that their attention was drawn to the novel object. Babies also displayed the same understanding, even if the picture they say was in black and white.

Stories also influence the way that children view themselves and the world around them. A study in Frontiers in Psychology shows how five year-olds can develop either a biological stance in the world, or a human-centered view.

“This shows the double-edged sword of children’s books,” says Sandy Waxman, a developmental psychologist at Northwestern University. “Kids are interested and learn from books, and changes the way that they conceptualize the world. But be careful what you say, because they can very easily pick up on different world views.”

Waxman says that the prevailing theory in development is that kids start out as anthropocentric -- only being able to think about other animals as weak approximation of humans -- and then later develop the ability to think about humans as one part of a larger biological world. Other studies had shown that kids in western societies are human-centered at age 5, but by age 7 they have a wider view of the world. Kids in non-western societies don’t show this change.

In this study, 62 5-year-old kids were read either a Berenstein Bears book (where bears wear pants, ride bikes and go surfing) or a kids' encyclopedia entry on the lives of bears – priming them to think about the world in one way or another. Then they completed a reasoning task about animals and humans.

The authors write, “these results reveal that when we “humanize” non-human animals in our stories to young children, we do not promote learning about the biological world. Instead, anthropomorphizing non-human animals appears to have the opposite effect.” They add that to increase science learning in classrooms, it helps to understand the impact of stories with skateboarding and surfing bears.

Waxman says the work also shows the flexibility of young minds. Even young kids are able to hold in their brain two different representations of a single thing. “They can think about 5 as a big number compared to 1 or a teensy number compared to 100,” she says. They’re not stuck in concrete.”