A new study has shown that children develop an interest in animals very early - toddlers toddlers prefer to look at an animal (even a snake or spider) than play with a pile of attractive toys.
The paper was published by a team led by Vanessa LoBue from Rutgers University, and it investigates young children’s interest in live animals. A set of three studies put children in a naturalistic playing environment, where they had the choice to either play with animals or a set of very attractive toys.
The animals were always in an enclosure so children were able to see them, but were never able to touch them; also, they were never in any type of danger. Of course, the main difference is (probably) that animals move, as opposed to animals; this is of course, practically impossible to control, but for this study, animals who don't really move a lot were chosen. Hamsters for example slept through most of the time.
The first study was an exploratory one involving children aged between 11 and 40 months. The animals chosen were a blue and red Betta fish and a tan Sentinel hamster; in the middle of the room with the enclose layed a doll, an airplane, fire trucks, building blocks and rattles. The children were given 10 minutes to play, while their parents sat in the corner of the room, apparently doing some paperwork.
The results showed that children interacted more frequently with the animals than the toys, and spent more time interacting with the animals than the two most popular toys. What's even more interesting is that the nature of the interaction was much different. The children gestured towards the animals more, talked about them more and asked more questions.
In the second study, a black tarantula and snake were added to the fish and the hamster. These animals were chosen because they are often seen as frightening. But again, the results were similar. Both adults and children were more likely to gesture towards animals than toys, but there were no significant effects for children for mentions or questions about the animals.
The final study however used a much more controlled environment; animals were paired with the toy counterpart: live hamster and stuffed toy hamster, etc. Infants aged 18 – 33 months took part - and children were not interested almost at all in the toys.
So inc conclusion, young children are very interested in live animals, compared to toys, even when the animals are not moving and cannot be touched. Furthermore, animals encourage them to be more outspoken and active - someting which was noticed on parents as well. As the authors put it, people “may find these results surprising, as they suggest that children prefer snakes and spiders to a group of highly attractive toys.”
Free research paper here.