Illustrations in picture books go beyond entertaining children and teach them how to navigate the world, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association on Sunday.
Australian researcher Gabrielle Simcock from the University of Queensland and American scientist Judy DeLoache from the University of Virginia tested 132 children younger than 30 months old to see if they could mimic actions depicted in picture books.
The results varied according to the children's ages and whether a photograph or drawing was used, but most children could complete the actions they had seen on the pages.
"This common form of interaction that takes place very early in children's lives may provide an important source of information to them about the world around them," Simcock said in a statement.
Most parents in the United States read to their toddlers daily, the researchers said, but until now studies have focused on how parents use the books to relate to their children.
In the first of the pair's experiments, children were read a book about building a rattle that showed photographs of a toddler putting a rubber ball in a plastic jar and then attaching a stick.
They were then given the same equipment as in the book and told to make a rattle. Most of the children were able to complete some of the steps, with most putting the ball in the jar and about half attaching the stick.
All performed better than a control group that was given the equipment but did not see the book.
The photographs were then published as drawings. Toddlers who were 24 months and 30 months old did just as well as when using photographs, but those who were 18 months old could not perform the actions. Finally, the 24 month and 30 month old children were shown black and white drawings made from the photographs.
This time around, the 2-year-olds did as poorly as the control group in putting the pieces together. This showed that young children learn best from pictures that realistically represent objects, the scientists said.
"The younger the child, the more difficult it is to appreciate the representational relation between a symbol - including a picture and what it stands for," they wrote in the journal Developmental Psychology. All of the children were able to put the rattle together after having an adult show them, the two said.