How A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh influences children’s emotional and social development through relatable simplicity.

*The following is an assignment written as part of my MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University for module ‘British Children’s Literature: Historical Perspectives‘.

Winnie-the-Pooh is the first of two books conceptualised and written by English author Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne, published in 1926. The book focuses on the adventures of a golden teddy bear called Winnie-The-Pooh and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga the Kangaroo, her little boy Roo, and Eeyore the donkey. Tigger the tiger is introduced in the second book The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Each of the seven chapters in Winnie-the-Pooh tells a different short story involving Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh bear, and any number of his animal friends, occasionally joined by the young human boy Christopher Robin. The tales of the honey-loving bear are set against the backdrop of the fictional Hundred-Acre-Wood, where all the animals live communally. The story has since been adapted into children’s movies by Disney after they bought the film rights in 1961 (Finch, 2000). Within this essay I will be considering a multitude of factors relating to how A.A. Milne’s work in Winnie-the-Pooh supports children’s emotional and creative development. Winnie-the-Pooh includes topics and themes relating to ethics, philosophy, and the support and promotion of accepting individuals who are different to us. I will argue that Milne created a variety of characters with unique personalities who all showcase individual differences and provide relatable characters for children. I will also be outlining how E.H. Shepard’s illustrative style enhances Winnie-the-Pooh’s effect as a learning and developmental text.

To begin, I will consider A.A. Milne’s writing and storytelling style. Winnie-the-Pooh contains both slapstick and capricious anecdotes in parallel with thought-provoking philosophical dialogue which typically occurs between two or more characters. We can observe Milne’s use of playful humour in Chapter One (‘In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin’, pp.5). While climbing a tree to investigate the origins of a buzzing sound that Pooh deduces must mean that bees and therefore honey (his favourite food) is somewhere nearby, he comically breaks a branch which he is stood upon. Pooh bear proceeds to fall and begins to tumble down from the tree, bouncing onto branches and spinning head over heels, narrating and talking to himself all the way down until he crashes to the ground (Milne, 1970, pp.7). This scene is evocative of a young child playing outdoors climbing trees, an activity which a child reader can automatically relate to. According to Mallan (1993, pp.18) “Animals and toys which are childlike, if not completely anthropomorphised, can provide humour for young children. The antics of such characters often put them at odds with the established order.” Mallan suggests that Winnie-the-Pooh falls under the category of being childlike, and states that the innocent view of the world which Pooh possesses makes him automatically relatable and likeable to children. Already, we can see that children are able to make personal connections between their own lives and the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh from sharing a similar world view and perceiving the bear to be one of their peers.

The philosophical aspects of Winnie-the-Pooh arise unexpectedly, and often present themselves in the middle of a mundane conversation relative to everyday tasks or decision making. For example, Pooh wisely states “I wish I could jump like that … Some can and some can’t. That’s how it is.” (pp.49). This statement is an acute observation about accepting one’s own strengths and weaknesses and recognising that it’s okay for someone else to be proficient in something which we are not. In Pooh and the Philosophers by John T. Williams (1995), Williams definitively regards Winnie-the-Pooh as a book with undeniable philosophical aspects, suggesting that A.A. Milne draws parallels to the works of ancient philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsch. Furthermore, Dr Catherine McCall, patron of The Philosophy Foundation, also supports the notion that Pooh is a philosopher. McCall’s consideration of Winnie-the-Pooh as a book with philosophical value was published in an article by Arron Hendy for the website ‘The Argus’ (2016). In this article McCall states that “What I see in Pooh is really something just the same as the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, which is ‘how to live a good life’”. McCall also points out that Winnie-the-Pooh provides accessible philosophy in the form of “poohisms”, which are life statements or pieces of advice which are easier to understand and relate to than the more complex philosophical statements originating from the ancient Greeks. The philosophical and thought-provoking characteristic of Winnie-the-Pooh could be suggested as an element of it’s enduring appeal to adults who continue to share the story with new generations of children. The farcical escapades of Pooh bear may appeal to young readers on a superficial level, but it could be suggested that the philosophical mode of writing in Winnie-the-Pooh enables the text to be a potential source of moral and fundamental life lessons, and thus supports child development emotional and social growth and understanding. Moral themes within the text include not stealing, being honest, and showing compassion to others. An example which is demonstrative of this includes when Piglet is trying unsuccessfully to reach the door knocker, and Winnie-the-Pooh responds “Let me do it for you” in a manner described as “kindly” (pp.36). In another scenario, Eeyore sagely pronounces “Remember that another time, all of you. A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.” (pp.58). I would therefore suggest that Winnie-the-Pooh operates as a positive influence on child development regarding social and emotional development, as it allows them to see themselves within the character of Winnie-the-Pooh, apply his advice and moral lessons to their own lives, and consequently develop a greater understanding of how to regulate emotions and treat others with compassion.

Following on from this suggestion, it is notable that it has been claimed that A.A. Milne wrote and created Winnie-the-Pooh for and about his young son (Neswith, 1932, pp.1). Perhaps it could be implied that the book was intended, from a Victorian father to his young child, as a collection of life lessons and helpful advice to guide his son through life as he grew up. The only human character mentioned in Winnie-the-Pooh, a young boy who occasionally visits the Hundred-Acre-Wood to join in with his animal friends’ adventures, was named after Milne’s only child, Christopher Robin. The real Christopher Robin was just six years old at the time of the book’s publication. According to Christopher Milne in his 1974 book The Enchanted Places (Milne, 2014), the bear Winnie-the-Pooh (or just simply ‘Pooh’) takes his name from Christopher Robin’s favourite teddy toy. The characters Kanga the mother kangaroo with her joey Roo, anxious Piglet, and forlorn donkey Eeyore were also inspired by Christopher Robin’s animal soft toy collection of the same names. The additional characters of Owl and Rabbit were creations of A.A. Milne’s own imagination specifically for the Winnie-the-Pooh story. The Hundred-Acre-Wood was inspired by and based upon Milne’s local Ashdown Forest where Christopher Robin liked to play as a child. This intimate reflection of A.A. Milne’s personal life within his writing lends itself to the theory that the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh was an attempt by Milne to connect with and pay homage to his son. Following this theory, it can be suggested that this may be why there is a theme of moral and philosophical lessons running throughout Winnie-the-Pooh and the little bear’s escapades. For example, in Chapter Two “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place” (Milne, 1970, pp.13), Winnie-the-Pooh visits his friend Rabbit and while he is there, due to his insatiable appetite, he eats all of Rabbits honey and condensed milk, leaving Rabbit with none left. When he finds out there is no more food to be had, Winnie-the-Pooh prepares to leave Rabbit and go home, only to become stuck in the front door due to having overindulged. Pooh then remains stuck in the front door of Rabbit’s tree for a week, while Rabbit hangs his washing on his back legs and Christopher Robin reads him stories to keep him entertained. Winnie-the-Pooh is told he must go without eating anything at all in order to lose weight so that his friends can eventually pull him free from the hole. This is a moral lesson in not being greedy, and also teaches children that we must face the consequences for our actions. This scenario could be related in real life to telling children not to eat too many sweet treats. In this way, the tales of Winnie-the-Pooh could be considered as akin to Aesop’s Fables, Grimms fairy tales, and other stories which serve to teach children right from wrong.

Although on the surface Winnie-the-Pooh presents as a quaint collection of stories about a mischievous but lovable group of animal friends, some theorists have reflected on it’s content and suggested that each of the characters within A.A. Milne’s creation represents, or to some degree is afflicted by, a variety of mental health and personality disorders. The article I will be drawing primary focus on while discussing this suggestion is the work entitled ‘Pathology in the Hundred-Acre-Wood: a neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne’ by Shea et al, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2000. According to the findings by Shea et al, the researchers claim that Tigger (who does not appear in Winnie-the-Pooh but is introduced in 1928’s The House at Pooh Corner), due to his excitability and hyperactivity, possesses a form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or a hyperactive and impulsive subtype. They diagnose Piglet with a Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and claim that Rabbit demonstrates the qualities of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Shea et al also suggest that Eeyore has a type of depressive disorder known as dysthymia, meaning a “bad state of mind” or “ill humour”, according to Harvard Medical School (2014). Although there is not much evidence to suggest the other characters do indeed possess mental health afflictions, the most prominent of Shea et al’s suggestions for their theory is that Eeyore has a form of depression affecting his everyday state of mind. Eeyore is categorically a very sombre and pessimistic character, and it would appear undeniable that from a clinical perspective, he must suffer from a form of depression. Eeyore’s depressive state of mind is seen throughout the book. For example on page 22 when Winnie-the-Pooh asks how he is, he responds; “Not very how … I don’t seem to have felt at all how for a long time.” and also responds “Thank you, Pooh … You’re a real friend … Not like Some” (pp.23). In Eeyore’s interactions with the other characters it is primarily Winnie-the-Pooh who pays the most attention to Eeyore and asks how he feels, attempting to make him feel better and showing concern for his friends’ low mood. For example, in Chapter 6 “In Which Eeyore has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents” (pp.34-42), Pooh bear discovers to much surprise that it is Eeyore’s birthday and he has not had any well wishes or presents from anyone, leaving him feeling uncared for and sad. To help his friend feel better and to celebrate his birthday with him, Winnie-the-Pooh urgently sets about finding presents for Eeyore. These presents include an empty honey pot inscribed with birthday wishes from Owl, along with an accidentally burst balloon from Piglet, both of which Eeyore is cheered up by. By the end of the chapter after he has been presented with his gifts and given well wishes from friends, Eeyore is described as being “happy as could be” (pp.42).

To investigate the significance of this chapter further, we must consider the research which has been conducted on young children’s emotional development, in particular regarding the sharing of literature with adults. Riquelme and Montero (2013) carried out a social-emotional experiment on children of 6-8 years old to distinguish how reading books with adults affected their ability to recognise emotions in others and to regulate their own emotions. Riquelme and Montero discovered that children who were read to and read with scored higher in respect to their emotional competence abilities. On page 229 of their findings, Riquelme and Montero state that “Emotion recognition refers to the ability to realize one’s own emotional state, as well as the ability to recognize emotional states in others.” This description of emotion recognition can be related to Chapter 6 of Winnie-the-Pooh where Pooh immediately recognises unhappiness in his friend Eeyore. Pooh does his best to rectify Eeyore’s feelings of sadness with kind gestures that demonstrate that he is valued and that his birthday matters. This serves as a good example of the moral and emotional learning that children can obtain from the stories within Winnie-the-Pooh. From Riquelme and Montero’s research it can be suggested that children develop emotional skills through reading and being read literature and, through association, Winnie-the-Pooh can therefore be said to behave as an aid to children’s emotional and social development. Furthermore, it can be said that Winnie-the-Pooh might act as a literary tool to help young children to understand and empathise with those who have mental health disorders, as well as finding comfort and support if they themselves are feeling the effects of a mental health condition. Speaking to The Guardian (Ferguson, 2018), children’s author Matt Haig explains that from his perspective “children’s fiction provides a non-threatening way for children to reflect on their lives in a place no one else can reach: their own heads.” However, although Shea et al’s findings are compelling and have certainly created grounds for debate and discussion, it could be proposed that the characters of Winnie-the-Pooh do not necessarily represent mental health disorders in the clinical manner in which Shea et al suggest in their paper. Instead, it might be said that Winnie-the-Pooh and the inhabitants of The Hundred-Acre-Wood simply act as an observant representation of the variety and diversity of people within society. Milne promotes the acceptance of and empathy for those who may think, feel, and behave differently to us through the moral behaviours of the characters he created. He clearly demonstrates through the stories in Winnie-the-Pooh that it is important to create space for and modify our behaviour to accommodate others around us, and that it is okay to be different. This is a concept and a moral lesson for both children and adults alike that can be applied across many areas of society. The promotion of the value of diversity and inclusivity impacts on a variety of modern social topics, such as gender equality, racial fairness, and disability equality, among others. Winnie-the-Pooh could be said, therefore, to underpin children’s emotional and social foundations that will help them understand themselves and the world around them in a more sensitive and compassionate way.

An additional aspect to consider when analysing Winnie-the-Pooh’s merit as a tool to support children’s emotional development is that it was written by A.A. Milne after he served in World War One. Notably, Milne fought as a soldier in the Battle of the Somme, an experience which unfortunately left him suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and significant trauma as a consequence (Wright, 2017). It could be proposed that Milne’s background as a soldier and the after-effects of serving in the war may have helped to nurture his empathetic and philosophical writing style in Winnie-the-Pooh. Furthermore, A.A. Milne worked closely with illustrator E.H. Shepard to visually capture the characters and settings of Winnie-the-Pooh, with Shepard’s illustrations being published within its pages alongside the story. Like Milne, Shepard also served in the First World War, tragically losing his brother and many of his comrades, but regardless he remained upbeat in the illustrations he produced throughout his time in the army (Steven, 2015). After his experience in the war, Shepard began to collaborate with A.A. Milne in creating Winnie-the-Pooh. E.H. Shepard’s drawing style was simplistic and realistic, consisting of black and white line sketches and pastel colour washes; there were no bright colours or vivid, loud scenery. His style was unhindered by the bright cartoons that we are familiar with today. Instead, Shepard’s visual representation of Pooh and his friends was muted, honest, and true to life. Illustrator Hillary Knight describes Shepards illustrative style as “…truly remarkable. His black-and-white pen-and-ink technique is so simple and direct.” (Evans, pp.11). Milne specifically asked Shepard to base his illustrations on the real versions of his son Christopher Robin’s toys, and Shepard spent time in A.A. Milne’s local Ashford Forest familiarising himself with how to accurately represent the trees and natural elements that would become the backdrop of The Hundred-Acre-Wood (Gosling, 2017). Emma Middleton (2018) explains that “Illustrations provide young readers with an immediate vision of the characters, setting, and mood of the story. Children instantly respond to characters from their visual appeal. We all know and love many picture book characters from their image alone.” The presence of illustrations within Winnie-the-Pooh allows children to become active participants in the world they are reading or hearing about, as the visual and verbal descriptions within the book underpin, elaborate, and embellish each other. Shepard’s simplistic drawing style, it could be argued, offers children a suggestion or an idea of Winnie-the-Pooh’s world, rather than a strict absolute completed image that requires no interpretation. Shepard’s illustrations allow the reader to fill in the blanks and let their imagination have the freedom to create their own visual version of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Hundred-Acre-Wood, supporting their creative development and allowing them to inject their own personal value onto the story. In essence, children may be able to connect to Winnie-the-Pooh from a more emotional vantagepoint as they can project their own lives into the story. This notion is supported by Fang (1996), who explains that “Children often associate pictures with their life experiences or familiar images, construct meaning based on their existing schemas or schemata” (pp.137-138). Fang also explains that “Since a short story does not normally allow for more fully developed characters, illustrations help develop the characters by depicting situations and emotions immediately familiar and credible to the children.” (pp.132). Shepard’s simplistic artistic representation of Winnie-the-Pooh could, in theory, aid children in finding solutions to issues within their own lives. This is because they may see themselves in relatable problem solving and moral-testing scenarios within the story which Winnie-the-Pooh encounters; essentially, they empathise with Pooh and his motives. Sipe (1998, pp.98) argues that illustrations play just as important a role within children’s books as the story itself; “the text-picture relationship is not so much a matter of balance of power as it is the way in which the text and pictures transact with each other, and transform each other”. Although research suggests that children prefer illustrated books which are realistic but colourful (Brookshire et al, 2002), there is still merit to be provided from Shepard’s illustrations on children’s emotional and creative development as, despite using muted colours, he is enabling Winnie-the-Pooh to become a multifaceted picture book which engages children and allows them to identify with the characters and obtain value from the story that they may not experience with just the text alone.

From the research I have gathered, I would suggest that Winnie-the-Pooh behaves as a moral compass for children who are just beginning to develop their social and emotional understanding. Winnie-the-Pooh provides lessons in compassion and kindness amalgamated with mischievous childlike adventures that incorporate slapstick humour with tender moments of self-awareness, allowing children to model themselves on Winnie-the-Pooh and his way of thinking. Children are able to relate to Pooh on an everyday level as they see themselves in his behaviours. Children can therefore apply the scenarios he encounters to their own lives, aiding them in navigating situations regarding inclusivity, diversity, honesty, and, at its core, decency towards others. There is also scope for Winnie-the-Pooh acting as a tool to aid children in understanding how to treat people around them with mental health issues, or if suffering from mental health disorders themselves, to help them to feel comforted and reassured that they are not alone. The combination of A.A. Milne’s philosophical and empathetic writing style alongside E.H. Shepard’s gentle and realistic illustrations creates a story book which provides children with a safe place to learn and practice emotional and social skills which are underpinned by an understanding of individual differences and the importance of being good to others.

Works Cited

Brookshire, J, Moses, L.E, and Scharff, L. Reading Psychology. October 2002; 23(4): 323-339. The influence of illustrations on children’s book preferences and comprehension.

Downs, J. Canadian Medical Association Journal. April 2001; 164(8): 1123. Regarding Pooh.

Evans, D. (2008) Show and Tell – Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Picture Book Illustration. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Fang, Z. (1996). Reading Horizons: A Journal of Literacy and Language Arts, 37 (2). Illustrations, Text, and the Child Reader: What are Pictures in Children’s Storybooks for?.

Ferguson, D. (2018) Can picture books meet the crisis in children’s mental health? The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/18/can-picture-books-meet-the-crisis-in-childrens-mental-health [Accessed: 01/01/2021]

Finch, C. (2000) Disney’s Winnie the Pooh: A Celebration of the Silly Old Bear. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Gosling, E. (2017) Insights into how Winnie The Pooh was made and illustrated. Creative Boom [online] Available at: https://www.creativeboom.com/inspiration/winnie-the-pooh/ [Accessed: 02/01/2021]

Harvard Medical School (2014) Dysthymia. Harvard Medical School [online] Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/dysthymia [Accessed: 01/01/2021]

Hendy, A. (2016) Winnie-the-pooh’s wisdom ‘rivals ancient greek philosophers’. The Argus [online] Available at: https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/14805455.winnie-the-poohs-wisdom-rivals-ancient-greek-philosophers/ [Accessed: 31/12/2020]

Mallan, K. (1993) Laugh Lines: Exploring Humour in Children’s Literature. Literature Support Series. Australia: Primary English Teaching Association.

Middleton, E. (2018) The Importance of Illustration in Picture Books. Emma Middleton [online] Available at: https://emmamiddleton.com/2018/06/19/the-importance-of-illustration-in-picture-books/ [Accessed: 02/01/2021

Milne, A.A. (1970) Winnie the Pooh. London: Egmont Books.

Milne, C. (2014) The Enchanted Places. London: Pan Macmillan.

Nesmith, M.E. The Elementary English Review. September 1932; 9:7, 172–192. The Children’s Milne.

Riquelme, E. and Montero, I. (2013) Improving Emotional Competence Through Mediated Reading: Short Term Effects of a Children’s Literature Program, Mind, Culture, and Activity, 20:3, 226-239.

Shea, S.E, Gordon, K, Hawkins, A, Kawchuk, J, and Smith, D. Canadian Medical Association Journal. December 2000; 163(12): 1557–1559. Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: a neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne.

Sipe, L.R. Children’s Literature in Education. June 1998; 29, 97–108. How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships.

Steven, R. (2015) E.H. Shepard: An Illustrator’s War. Creative Review [online] Available at: https://www.creativereview.co.uk/e-h-shepard-an-illustrators-war/ [Accessed: 01/01/2021]

Williams, J. T. (1995) Pooh and his Philosophers, New York: Dutton Books.

Wright, R. (2017) On Christopher Robin, War, and PTSD. New Yorker [online] Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/on-christopher-robin-war-and-ptsd [Accessed: 02/01/2021]

Published by Alice Shuttleworth

I am a freelance content and creative writer studying a Postgraduate MA in Children's Literature.

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