Don't tell me Peppa Pig is bad for my kids
It's time to speak out in the defence of Peppa, Paddington, Simba, Babar and the rest of the animals
When people congratulate me on the wide vocabulary of my three-year-old, I attribute it to his addiction to television – and specifically to the countless episodes of Peppa Pig that he watches.
I am a fan of the small screen as a parenting tool and of 'Peppa Pig', in particular, as a programme for pre-schoolers.
In bite-sized, five-minute chunks, the animated series promotes hard work and family values, chronicles developmental milestones and examines important matters such as money, health and friendship.
But to listen to a cohort of scientists in Canada, you'd think I'm a profoundly negligent mother because I let my son follow the anthropomorphic heroes of this wildly popular cartoon.
Researchers at the University of Toronto have discovered that talking animals, such as Mickey Mouse, Rupert Bear and our perky porcine pal, prevent children from learning properly about nature.
In a report for the online journal, 'Frontiers in Psychology', Dr Patricia Ganea, who recently led a study of one- to five-year-olds, said: "Books that portray animals realistically lead to more learning and more accurate biological understanding.
"We were surprised to find that even the older children in our study were sensitive to human-like portrayals of animals and attributed more human characteristics to animals after being exposed to fantastical books than after being exposed to realistic books."
Well, if we are going to get all heavy about it, I'd argue that the natural world can be cruel and that there is plenty of time later on for a child to learn its brutal truths.
In the meantime, the boffins in Toronto ought to know that nature is one of Peppa Pig's key themes. Far from "inhibiting factual learning" and "interfering with children's abstract thinking and conceptual reasoning about animals", episodes are scattered with references to the changing seasons, to the weather, to complicated cloud formations and to the provenance of fresh food (usually Grandma Pig's vegetable patch).
Peppa and her friends know full well that chicks hatch in spring, what causes a shadow and that you can grow flowers from seed.
Her favourite pastime is splashing in muddy puddles (always with her wellies on, mercifully), and her influence is such that the nation's children have apparently taken to doing the same thing wherever possible. Can there be a better way to get little people active in the great outdoors?
As ever, there is a balance to be struck here. A mother of four I know says: "I do worry that the real world can seem boring in comparison to the natural world that fiction portrays. It's important for all children to be shown the real pace of nature, to explore local woods, to visit a wetland centre, for example, where watching a coot just go about its business is the highlight of the day. But I think these characters probably help our children learn more about humans than animals anyway."
Certainly, the storylines of the Bafta-winning Peppa Pig series, which celebrates its tenth anniversary in May, cover all the rites of passage in a small child's life and make the frightening ones – starting school, losing a tooth, spending the night away from home – considerably more palatable.
Indeed, most of our furry humanoid favourites have wisdom to impart – even if their portrayal of the natural world isn't always accurate. Rupert Bear encourages an adventurous spirit. Winnie the Pooh represents thoughtfulness, humility and companionship. Babar champions deference and respect for your elders. Paddington endorses courage and independence.
As for Disney's 'The Lion King', 85 colourful minutes of noisy anthropomorphism, it illuminates one of the greatest existential truths of all: the inevitable circle of life.
What these characters do teach – and their ability to stoke the imaginations of their young fans – is invaluable; what they don't can surely be picked up in due course. As one school-gate mother said when I raised this thorny debate with her: "All it takes is one trip to the farm park to learn that pigs neither wear clothes nor speak like we do."
Granted, she is a particularly lurid shade of pink, that theme tune is hard to bear and her spin-off merchandise may yet take over the world, but there are far more damaging cultural references out there than the likes of poor old Peppa.
Health & Living