Menus Subscribe Search

Children’s Pop-Up Books Flop as Learning Tool

• August 09, 2010 • 4:59 PM

New research finds children learn less from pop-up books than they do from old-fashioned volumes illustrated with photos.

Around the mid-1960s, publishers decided that old-fashioned children’s books — the kinds with large-type print and colorful photographic illustrations — were passé. Led by Waldo Hunt and Bennett Cerf, they revived the 19th-century concept of pop-up books, which allowed young readers to create three-dimensional worlds by simply pulling a tab or turning a page.

Their guiding belief was that these books were more interactive and thus more engaging to young readers. While that may be true, it fails to address a crucial point: Many, if not most, children’s books are meant to be educational. And new research finds youngsters learn more by leafing through traditional books — ones where the illustrations stay on the page.

A research team led by University of Virginia psychologist Medha Tare came to this conclusion after performing two experiments, which are described in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. The first featured 54 children, ages 18 to 22 months. (The researchers report eight additional children were excluded from the study “due to fussiness,” a phrase one doesn’t encounter nearly enough in academic research papers.)

With an experimenter by his or her side, each child spent three to five minutes looking through a picture book about animals. One-third of the kids saw a book illustrated with photographs; one-third saw a book illustrated with drawings; and the final third saw a pop-up book. Those in the pop-up book group were encouraged to interact with the volume’s manipulative features, such as lifting flaps that caused the animals to move.

The experimenter made special mention of one “target animal” for each child (either a parrot or flamingo), pointing it out and repeating its name several times. Afterward, the kids were given a series of tests to see how much information they had retained.

Specifically, they were presented with two bird images (which were different from the illustrations they had seen) and two miniature bird toys, then asked to pick out the bird the experimenter had previously pointed out.

Those exposed to the book with the photographic images were able to correctly identify their bird nearly 80 percent of the time. Those who saw the book with the drawings did so around 70 percent of the time. But those who were entertained by the pop-ups did so only 50 percent of the time — no better than chance.

A second experiment featured 48 children ages 27 to 32 months. Like their younger counterparts, they looked through one of the three books. As they did so, the experimenter pointed out certain facts, such as “chicks like to eat worms” and “monkeys like to eat bananas.” They were later asked to recall this information, answering such questions as “Which one likes to eat worms?”

The results mirrored those of the first experiment. The kids who looked at the photo-illustration book did the best, while those exposed to the pop-up book did the worst.

Why were the pop-ups relatively ineffective as a learning tool? Tare and her team, which included veteran research psychologist Judy DeLoache, point to earlier research suggesting that when children “have been encouraged to manipulate and play” with something, it becomes harder for them to grasp the fact that object is actually a symbol of something else (say, a picture of a parrot). They’re more focused on the object they’re manipulating and less concerned with what it’s supposed to represent.

In addition, “the children’s manipulation of the flaps and pull-tabs on the page might have increased their cognitive load such that they could not additionally process what the adult was saying about the content of the book,” they write. “Because it did not have such distracting elements, and had more detailed images, learning labels and facts from the realistic book may have been an easier task.”

The researchers conclude that while pop-up books “may have their place as entertainment,” their “bells and whistles” approach appears to be counterproductive to learning. “When attempting to convey information to young children,” they add, “less is more.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


September 12 • 12:00 PM

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you’d be if the government didn’t interfere with your life, but that’s not what the research shows.


Follow us


3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.