Storybooks featuring human characters instead of cuddly critters — think Dora the Explorer, not Winnie the Pooh — are the best bet for teaching kids life lessons, a new study from the University of Toronto finds.

The research from U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education tested the longstanding belief that stories with animal-based characters like Franklin the turtle or Arthur the aardvark help children learn as effectively, if not better than, stories with human characters.

Instead, the researchers found realistic stories are better for promoting young children's pro-social behavior — things like sharing with their peers, for instance.

"Children are more likely to learn from books that have characters they can identify with more easily," explains lead researcher Patricia Ganea in an interview with CBC's Metro Morning.

"So, a human character, instead of an animal dressed up like a human."

For the research, Ganea and her team read preschoolers a sharing story with either human characters or anthropomorphized animal characters.

Children were also given stickers and had a chance to share some of their 10 stickers with another child, according to U of T's coverage of Ganea's research, and the number of stickers shared provided a measure of children's altruistic giving.

"Reading the human story significantly increased preschoolers' altruistic giving but reading the anthropomorphic story or a control story decreased it," the study finds.

Patricia Ganea

"Children are more likely to learn from books that have characters they can identify with more easily," explains lead researcher Patricia Ganea. (University of Toronto)

'Expand' types of books kids read, researcher says

But that doesn't mean parents should ditch animal books, the researchers say.

"The message is not that we should not read fantasy books to our children — those are wonderful books, and great literature that children should certainly be exposed to," says Ganea, an associate professor of early cognitive development at OISE

"The message from this study, though, is we should expand childrens' books."

That should also mean finding books that represent different genders and ethnicities so kids are "portrayed in the books that they're reading," she adds.

"It will be much easier for them to relate to a girl or boy in a book than a raccoon who is talking," Ganea says.

The study is from the August issue of Developmental Science.

With files from CBC's Metro Morning