Children prefer real animals to toys

Children as young as 11 months of age show a natural affinity for animals and this attraction includes animals that are widely feared by adults, including snakes and spiders.

These are the conclusions of a study published online in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology (BJDP). It was conducted by Vanessa LoBue from Rutgers University and Megan Bloom Pickard, Kathleen Sherman, Chrystal Axford and Judy S. DeLoache from the University of Virginia.

Children’s behaviour towards animals was explored over three experiments in which animals and attractive toys vied for the children’s attention.

The psychologists found that children as young as 11 months of age prefer live animals, including scary animals such as snakes and spiders, to toys. The study demonstrated that children spent more time with both benign and scary animals than with the toys and the quality of their interactions was also better. They gestured more towards animals, talked about the animals more, and asked their carers more questions about the animals than about the toys.

Vanessa LoBue concludes “The fact that children find animals so appealing suggests that children may benefit from having an animal, like a pet, in their lives. Our research develops the idea that animals may be a good instrument for learning. This is borne out by the widespread use of animal characters in children’s books and TV programmes.”

This study was conducted to examine two theories in psychology: The first is that humans have a natural affinity for all living things, and the second is the humans have a natural aversion for ancient predators like snakes and spiders. The research is important because it supports the first of the theories, but not the second and indicates that fear of scary animals is a learned behaviour, probably acquired via parents.