Hamster and boy rubbing noses

Live animals versus fancy toys – which do toddlers prefer?

Ignoring WC Fields’ advice to “never work with children or animals”, a team of researchers in the USA has done both at once in a research paper that compares children’s interest in live animals against their interest in toys.

05 February 2013

By Christian Jarrett

Older children have an obvious affinity for animals, betrayed through their love of pets and zoos. That very small children share this affection for creatures is  usually taken as a given, but in fact it’s an issue that’s been subject to surprisingly little systematic research, particularly when it comes to real live animals as opposed to mere pictures.

Vanessa LoBue and her colleagues began by filming 38 toddlers (average age 24 months) as they played alone freely in a room that contained 14 “highly attractive” toys on the floor, including fire trucks and a ball, and two caged live animals: a tan Sentinel hamster and a blue and red Beta fish, each located on a shelf on opposite sides of the room. Each child’s parent sat quietly in the corner during the 10-minute play session. The main finding here was that the toddlers initiated significantly more interactions with the two animals versus the two most popular toys – the doll and aeroplane. They also gestured more frequently at the animals, mentioned them more often and asked more questions about them.

A second study was similar, but this time there were four toys and four animals: the fish and hamster, plus a black Tarantula and an orange and black California Mountain King snake. Also, after the first five minutes play time, each child’s parent was allowed to play with them. Thirty-eight new toddlers took part (average age 28 months) in this study and again they initiated more interactions with the animals than the toys, as did the parents. Both children and parents displayed slight caution in their interactions with the spider and snake, consistent with past research suggesting infants have an evolved fear for these creatures.

An obvious criticism of the research is that the animals were animated while the toys were inanimate. LoBue and her team acknowledged this, but they pointed out the cages were small and the animals were chosen for their relative inactivity. For instance, the hamster mostly sleeps in the day-time, which was when the testing occurred. The spider barely moved.

In a final study, the researchers sacrificed some of the realism of the set-up in favour of greater experimental control. This time toddlers were presented with a series of pairs of stimuli – a real caged animal alongside a toy version of that same animal, which was attached to the shelf. The animals used this time included the hamster and fish from before, plus a green gecko. Consistent with the findings from free play, the children spent more time interacting with the live animals. And when their parents joined them, they spent even more time interacting with the real animals, which suggests parents facilitate their children’s preference for living creatures.

“Future research would be important in discovering why both children and adults show more interest in live animals than other objects,” the researchers concluded, “and whether there are any potential benefits that can be gained by children’s avid interest.”

Further reading

LoBue, V., Bloom Pickard, M., Sherman, K., Axford, C., and DeLoache, J. (2013). Young children’s interest in live animals. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 31 (1), 57-69 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2012.02078.x