There's an Actual Scientific Reason Why Kids Are So Enchanted With Clifford

See why the Big Red Dog has been so beloved by preschoolers since the very first book was published in 1963.

By Megan Zander
Jan 16, 2019



There's an Actual Scientific Reason Why Kids Are So Enchanted With Clifford

Jan 16, 2019

Recently, I bundled up my kids and took them to see a pre-Thanksgiving parade of giant balloons in Stamford, CT. I thought they’d love seeing popular cartoon characters towering overhead, dodging power lines and bouncing in the breeze. However, my five-year-old twins were more concerned with what snacks I had in my bag (thankfully, lots) and when we were going to get out of the cold.

But all that changed when a giant red dog balloon started drifting its way down the street. “IT’S CLIFFORD!” a small girl up the block yelled, and suddenly all the kids were on their feet, screaming and pointing with excitement at a big red dog slowly floating towards us. It was, hands-down, the highlight of the parade, eclipsing even the end where Santa Claus arrived on a firetruck. “Remember when they made the giant Clifford balloon do a spin, Mom?” one of the boys piped up from the backseat just yesterday. “That was awesome.”

He’s right, it was pretty impressive. But his comment also got me wondering — why is it that kids love Clifford so much? The first book was written by Norman Bridwell in 1963, and yet, whenever I tell my boys to go grab some books to read, one of the Clifford phonics readers or his bedtime tales always makes the cut. (Browse our favorite Clifford books, plushes and activities at the Scholastic Store.)

Curious, I did a little digging and discovered there are some real reasons, rooted in the psychology of children’s development, that make Clifford loom so large in my little guys’ world.

1. Kids May Have a Primal Response to Clifford’s Color

Clifford’s iconic hue was picked totally at random: “It was red because I happened to have red paint on the drawing table that night,” Bridwell told the Boston Globe in 2004. Turns out that happy accident is part of the reason why kids are so obsessed with him. Red is one of the first colors babies can see, along with black and white, according to research from the baby lab at the University of Sussex, as reported in the Guardian.  Other research has found that babies are attracted to bright, primary colors.   

“He’s a bright color with a lot of movement. That’s really important for brain development for younger kids,” says Myra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA. “Movement and color are aspects of the world a young brain requires to stimulate connections and learning.”

The next time I’m looking for a way to convince the kids to switch off the video games, tempting them with a Clifford activity book featuring his primary colors and fun learning activities might be just the trick to getting them to hit that off button.

2. Clifford Helps Foster Language Development

It’s not just the kindy-aged crew who think the big red dog is a rock star. My kids have been huge fans since they were old enough to gum Clifford board books, and according to Mendez they’re not alone. Turns out babies are drawn to Clifford because of his doggie demeanor. “In terms of language development and sound making, kids first practice with animal sounds,” she explains. “They learn those kinds of sounds, like ‘Woof,Woof’ before they even label that ‘thing’ as a ‘dog.’ Animal sound associations tend to be fun for kids, so very early on animals are appealing.” Now we know why your baby lights up when the dog makes an appearance in the living room.

3. Clifford Embodies the Best of Our Emotions

Unlike binkies and other popular animated characters, Clifford doesn’t seem to be a “phase” with kids. It’s more of a life-long love affair. That’s because as kids grow they start to identity with the giant dog, who’s basically a big kid himself. “Kids do not generally associate animals as bad, evil, scary,” says Mendez. “They’re usually friendly, inviting, relatable because animals are like kids. They bounce around, they goof off, they try to please and they just want love. Young children particularly really respond to that.”

4. Kids Relate to Clifford’s Clumsiness

If you’ve ever read a Clifford tale (or four) at bedtime, then you know that part of his charm is how his size makes him a teensy bit accident-prone. Kids who are developing motor control skills or working on following directions and rules can totally relate. “The magic of the character and stories Norman created with Clifford is that children can see themselves in this big dog who tries very hard to be good, but is somewhat clumsy and always bumping into things and making mistakes,” said Dick Robinson, chairman, president, and chief executive of Scholastic, in a 2014 company statement. "What comforts the reader is that Clifford is always forgiven by Emily Elizabeth, who loves him unconditionally.”

5. Clifford and Emily Elizabeth Represent Love With No Limits

And while some adults (me, it’s me) tend to shy away from large dogs, my kids launch themselves towards any stuffed Clifford they see, and I’m confident they’d do the same if they encountered him in real life. Mendez says this makes total sense, because to our kids, Clifford is a symbol of unconditional love and acceptance. “Even if the idea that he grew so large through love is abstract for little kids to grasp, they pick up on how much she loves him, her smile, her hugs, her brightness towards him,“ explains Mendez.

Or perhaps Bridwell simply knew kids would think the idea of a giant dog was awesome. “A woman once asked me about my process in writing it,” he said in the 2004 Globe interview, “and I said, ‘No process at all. He just seems like the kind of dog it would be fun to own.’” 

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