Children's perception of real and pretend worlds

Children's intuitions about the relationship between real and cartoon people and real and cartoon worlds were explored. We were interested in finding out whether children think that cartoon people can interact in the real world and vice versa or do they think that each world should be separate?

Over 70 children between 2 and 3 years of age participated in this study. The procedure involved watching a series of pictures for a couple of minutes on a computer screen while the eye tracker recorded unobtrusively exactly where the children were looking. The pictures contained a person (builder, postman, fireman) and a vehicle (dumper truck, post van, fire engine) that were either both cartoon, both real, or a combination. Also, the pictures either contained the 'correct' person to drive the vehicle or the incorrect person.

We found that both age groups looked longer at a picture when a real person was with a cartoon vehicle than a real vehicle. However, for pictures containing a cartoon person only older children showed a difference in their looking patterns (by looking longer at the cartoon person with a cartoon vehicle than a real vehicle). There were no effects on looking behaviour according to whether the correct person was with the appropriate vehicle or not.

This suggests that children are able to differentiate between real and cartoon elements of a scene. The results have implications for understanding children's reactions to cartoon images, which are complicated because they can be interpreted in two different ways: one way is as representations of reality; the other is as entities in themselves that do not necessarily represent reality. The results also have interesting implications for designing materials that best capture children's attention, that is young children pay more attention to real people when they are in a cartoon world than a real world.

This study was conducted by Dr. Louise Bunce, Prof. Gert Westermann and Julia Birchenough.