Illustrated story books are better for kids' brains than video or text, study finds

Dr. John Hutton say the results of a new study are a cautionary tale about the negative effects of electronic devices on kids' imaginations.

Study used stories by Canadian author Robert Munsch to test how children respond to different media

Researchers used Robert Munsch's classic children's books in the study. (Firefly Books)
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While an educational audio book or cartoon may seem like the best option to entertain a curious four-year-old, researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital say it's best to pick up an old-fashioned picture book. 

In a recent study, researchers presented stories by Canadian author Robert Munsch to young children in three different formats — audio only, the picture book with audio, and an animated cartoon — to find out what happens in their brains. 

Lead author Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, spoke with As It Happens Carol Off about the study. 

Here is part of that conversation. 

Dr. Hutton, what were you hoping to learn from this study?

Are there fundamental differences in how preschool-age children — which are right in, you know, that very rapid stage of brain development — process stories presented in different formats?

Canadian author Robert Munsch celebrates Family Literacy Day with students from Kimberely School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. (Canadian Press Images/Literacy Foundation)

How did you do it? How did you study these children?

We brought a group of 27 kids that were in the preschool age range, three to five years old. They were all pre-kindergarten. They were not yet reading.

And it was roughly even mix of boys and girls. 

They had FMRI done where we presented them in the scanner about a five-minute story, strictly audio, followed by a rest and then a five-minute story that had illustrated pictures accompanying it, followed by a rest and then a fully animated story for five minutes.

What were the differences in the way they took in those three kinds of storytelling?

We summarized them in what we call the Goldilocks effect.

In audio format, it seemed like the language network was having to work a little bit harder to keep up with the story and to really figure out what was going on, and there wasn't as much involvement of the visual networks.

The imagery network was definitely engaged but ... the way it looked was that the brain was having to work a little harder to figure out what was going on in the story.

Dr. John Hutton is the lead researcher on the study and a pediatrician and clinical researcher at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. (Submitted by Dr. John Hutton)

So you called that ... too cold?

We call that a little too cold… likely because kids at that age don't have access to as many images. Like, they haven't seen as many things out in the world.

Probably at that stage if they hear Robert Munsch describe something they may be wondering, what is that? And they may have to work harder to sort of to figure it out.

In the illustrated version, which we described as just right, there with a really nice balanced integration of the visual networks and the default mode network and the language networks. They were off they all seemed to be co-operating a lot more.

Which is probably one of the reasons that picture books are so appealing [to] that age. ... If you have a picture, that gives the child something to start with and then they bring their imagination into play and they could bring the story to life in their mind.

In the animated format, it was like everything kind of came apart. 

We called that too hot.

Munsch's picture books were the most effective form of storytelling for the kids in the study. (Firefly Books)

There are assumptions that you can give these tablets to kids and there's some interesting cartoons and animations on there and the kids are engaged in it ... that doesn't seem to be the case.

I think it's a little bit of a cautionary tale.

At that age, kids' ... brain networks develops gradually and in order to reinforce the connection they need practice.

We think it's really important for kids to have the opportunity to, you know, be given as much help as they need, but then still have the opportunity to practice applying their own imagination.

And then later on, as they become better readers, they may be better able to use those networks to see pictures in their mind's eye when the book doesn't have pictures anymore.

And possibly kids that have too much exposure to the animated content when they're young could underdevelop those networks and, as a consequence, not be as engaged during stories later on and they become somewhat addicted to just having the content fed to them.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Interview produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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