Why are our children unsurpassed in the savanna, but they don’t know how to recognize hair
In order to protect nature, it is still necessary to know it. As the human habitat continues to move away from natural areas, cartoons, books, stuffed animals, and even clothes are more than ever media that make children aware of the world around them. But is it used correctly?
This is a question that Michiel Hooykaas, a Dutch researcher, has been asking for years. The first field of research: children’s books. With his team, they seized 217 works for children aged 3 to 9, published between 2010 and 2020, which won praise. They identified 2200 animals through all these works, even if the researchers are well aware that these books are not specifically written/illustrated to educate children about nature, they contribute to the image of animals and biodiversity. Of these 2,200 animals named on the pages, the vast majority of mammals: domestic animals or popular exotics (lion, bear, elephant, etc.) have leading roles. In the background there are sometimes birds, insects or fish, with which, however, in terms of numbers, mammals cannot be compared in real life. Moreover, mammals have the opportunity to be precisely identified, for example “tiger” (rather than “cat”), while a bird is very often “just” a bird; he has no right to be singled out. Then not everyone is placed in the same boat!
Excessive representation of exotic animals
But Michiel Hooykaas sets another trap give pride of place to animals, for example, from the African savannah: “If children see only charismatic exotic animals in these books, they might unintentionally get the impression that nature is something far from their world”. And I don’t feel very involved growing up. Indeed, children are invincible in all these species, they know the difference between a hyena and a wild dog, but it is more complicated to name a starling, a garden finch, a blackbird or even a magpie. However, getting to know the wild animals that surround us directly gives a sense of belonging and affection.
On the other hand, the animal protagonists are rarely shown in their real habitat and are anthropomorphized. However, it is a shame for the researcher to be deprived of teaching children some fun natural behaviors: “We see a hippopotamus going to the toilet like a human, while in nature it throws out excrement and blows it with its tail”.
Dinosaurs on sweatpants for boys, butterflies for girls
Michiel Hooykaas tackled another field of study: children’s clothing. He looked through the catalogs of C&A, Zalando and H&M in the Netherlands. In total, just over 3000 animal references, of which … almost a quarter were very popular dinosaurs, all of which appeared on boys’ clothing. Other: mostly mammals and exotic animals, like in the books. On the girl’s clothes, the insect still has wind in its sails: a butterfly; and on top of all that, there the animals are very often humanized (cut, dressed, etc.). Is it necessary to go to such lengths that the child will appreciate the tracksuit? And by making the depicted animals cute, it is difficult to establish a connection with the real animal and arouse the transference of attachment. Mickey “Mouse” is a glaring example.
Here, too, for researchers, the depiction of animals on children’s clothing is a source of bias and distortion, and it could be an original and interesting cultural and everyday medium for enriching children’s perception and openness towards animals and biodiversity!