Archive for September 24th, 2013

September 24, 2013

Research Update: What Are We Learning About Child Development So Far?

by Melissa Harding


Child development researchers conducting research in museums is part of a growing trend that allows families to take part in real science being done right in front of them. Parents can watch their child engage with a researcher and participate in “capital ‘S’ Science”, learn the methods of research, interact with real scientists and learn how current research is applicable to their family life. Children can contribute to the process of scientific discovery and understand how scientists look and act . In short, having researchers in museums helps to break down barriers between the public and scientists, increasing awareness of child development as a science and overall scientific literacy.

For the past year at Phipps, we have been working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Development Lab to provide a museum setting for their work.  CMU’s Cognitive Development Lab is interested in gaining a better understanding of “how children generalize knowledge they have to new situations, how children acquire language, what role language plays in knowledge generalization, how children maintain focused attention, and what role focused attention plays in acquisition of new knowledge.” So now is the time to ask, what kind of understanding has their research gained and how can it be used?

Several of the games that researchers have been playing at Phipps have been testing category-based reasoning. You may remember them from this previous article on research in museums:

IMG_0182The first, a pictures game conducted by doctoral student Karrie Godwin, investigates the factors that influence young children’s ability to make inductive inferences, or guesses based on probable connections. In particular, this study was interested in understanding the part that a child’s category knowledge and their perceptual knowledge (their perceived ideas of the similarities of objects) play in their inductive reasoning. In this study, children were shown three pictures – a target (or the category choice) and two test items that were potentially related to the target. For example, children might be shown a grey, fluffy-tailed cat as their target and then given the choice between an orange kitten or a fluffy, grey raccoon. The kitten matches the category of “cat”, which is a category-based match, while the raccoon looks very similar to the picture of the target and could be perceived to be the same, which is a perceptual match.  The children learn that the target object has a fictional property inside (e.g. fisp cells); they are then asked which of the other items they think has the same property as the target.

Results: The study results found that while 3 and 4-year olds are equally likely to pick either item, 5-year olds were more likely to pick the category match. This suggest that when it is difficult to differential between the given conceptual (previous category knowledge) and perceptual information (what they learn from their senses), young children are unable to resolve that difficulty. However, their ability to tell the difference improves between pre-school and kindergarten.
These findings were recently presented at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society; Data collection from 2-year-old children is currently in progress.

The second category-based game, also conducted by doctoral student Karrie Godwin, is a game of synonyms. This study investigates how 4-year old children learn and reason with objects that are semantically similar (synonyms).   In this study, children were told about three objects hiding behind three doors, a target item and two test items. One of the target items was semantically similar and one was a lure, or a false answer. For example, if the target was “rock”, then a semantically similar item would be “stone”; sometimes the lure was semantically close, like “grass”, and sometimes it was semantically distant, like “boat”. As in the above study, the children are told that the target object has a fictional property inside and are then asked which of the other items they think has the same property as the target.

Results: When the lure was distant, children were more likely to differentiate the semantically similar item from lure than when the lure was closely related. This indicates that children are beginning to show some sensitivity to synonyms. Data collection for this study is on-going. To learn more, you can read a paper reporting results of a related study.

IMG_0157The last game that researchers played with our visitors also involved semantic development. This study, conducted by doctoral student Layla Unger, investigated the ways that children organize plants and animals based on a variety of different relationships between them. For example, there are many ways to organize a group of animals – where they live, what size they are, what color they are, what sounds they make, etc. This study was interested in understanding how easily children can go from only recognizing obvious relationships (physical attributes) to recognizing more subtle ones (biological grouping); it was also interested in whether a child can recognize that objects have a range of different relationships. Children played the Help Zibbo Game, in which they help Zibbo the Zookeeper organize plants and animals in his zoo. Using a grid to represent the zoo, children placed blocks representing different animals and plants on the game board based on their ideas of how they should be categorized. Researchers measured how close or far away children placed the pieces.

Results: Preliminary finding suggest that as soon as children can recognize relationships between items, they are able to understand those that are both easily observed and those that are more subtle. This research is still ongoing.

While it may seem that a lot of this research is looking for incredibly specific outcomes, there are many ways to generalize this knowledge. Category-based reasoning is important in the cognitive abilities of both adults and children; it is the base of much of our learning and functioning in life. Learning how children develop this skill helps us to better understand how they develop more complex social and cognitive skills, such as interacting with others and learning language. In addition, understanding how children categorize and reason is important for teachers because the more we can learn about how children develop, the better teachers we can be and the more developmentally appropriate curriculum can become. Parents can benefit from this information as well; developmental knowledge is helpful in understanding the actions and reactions of your child, as well as how to effectively communicate across the developmental divide.

Phipps is very excited to host the Cognitive Development Lab in the Conservatory for a second year, as well as to extend our partnership to other labs within the local area who are investigating similar ideas. We are proud to be contributing to an increase of knowledge and understanding and are looking forward to another great year of learning!

There is much more being done at the Cognitive Development Lab than talked about here; to learn more about the research being conducted by CMU’s Child Development Lab and all the great folks who do the research, check out their great website.

If you are local to Pittsburgh and would like to participate, check out this information for parents!

To read more about the importance of research in museums, check out this great post.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.


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