A new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, and the University of Texas, Austin, finds that young children seem to prefer books that satisfy their natural drive to understand how the world works.
For example, a good explanatory book doesn't just tell you that tigers have stripes. It explains that the stripes make the tiger harder to see in the long grass, so it can better surprise his prey.
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, recruited 50 families in Austin, Texas, with 3- and 4-year-old children. In two sessions, a couple of weeks apart, volunteers read the same pair of books to each child: Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, and What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You?by author and illustrator Steve Jenkins.
Both books are about animals, but Biggest, Strongest, Fastest simply describes each animal, while What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? explains how an animal's certain body part or behavior helps it survive. (The researchers edited the books for the experiment to make this distinction more pronounced and so that each book had the same number of words.)
During each reading session, the volunteers used the same reading style with the child and read the same books, but in a different order. At the end of each session, the children were asked which book they preferred.
While the kids liked both books, they overwhelmingly choose What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? as their favorite book. Almost 44 percent of the children selected this explanatory book as their preferred story, compared to 29 percent who went for Biggest, Strongest, Fastest.
Figuring out cause and effect may release the pleasure chemical dopamine in children's brains, study coauthor Margaret Shavlik told CNN. When parents select books that help children do this, it may encourage kids to enjoy reading and boost their early literacy skills, she said.
The study was quite small and only involved two books, so it can't be taken as definitive proof that children prefer causal books. However, it does fit with what scientists know about young children's inquisitive nature.
Even if the book you're reading with your child doesn't do this, you can help engage your child by asking him questions as you read together and getting him to find items on the page.
Check out a list of age-appropriate, explanatory books, as recommended by the independent bookstore Little Shop of Stories.
You can also find BabyCenter tips on how to raise your child to love reading.