How do children categorize new objects?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Previous research has shown that children make subtle distinctions between ordinary objects. Shown a variety of simple, hand-crafted objects and asked “What is it?”, children called the objects different things depending on whether they were made on purpose or by accident. We’re interested in how this kind of naming task might differ for two- and three-dimensional objects that were all made on purpose.

    In this study, children (ages 3-8 years) will see a number of hand-made objects and hear background information about them. This information will be limited to who made the objects and what kinds of materials were used, but never why the person made them. One experimenter will show children the objects and tell them the background information. A second experimenter (who cannot see the objects or hear the information) will then ask: “What is it?” We have a second, “uninformed” experimenter ask this question so that children are not biased against telling the first experimenter responses that may seem too obvious (e.g. “It’s a box!”)

    We are interested to see whether children will describe the two-dimensional items using the same types of categories (for example, “tools“) that they use to describe the three-dimensional items. This research will help us to better understand how children categorize new objects that they know very little about, and thus how they may classify things as they move through the world.

    This work is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Ellen Winner and the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College.

        » Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Mystery Objects

    On the second floor of the Discovery Center, there are many novel objects for your child to experience (e.g. PVC pipes, oddly shaped blocks, pneumatic tube capsule). Show your child an object and describe it using the materials the object is made from as reference. For example: “Look! Here is something that somebody made out of plastic and metal!” Ask your child what they think the object is. Does s/he describe the object based on the materials it is made from? Its function? Some other feature? Does your child make connections between the unfamiliar object and other objects they have seen before?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Form and Function

    At home, collect several objects of different material, shape, and function. Give half of the objects to your child, and keep half for yourself. Put a barrier between you and your child so that neither can see the other’s object.

    Play a game where you both take turns describing each object, without saying its name, and seeing if the other person can guess what it is. For example, if you have a pillow, you might describe it using words like “soft”, “made of fabric and cotton”, “squishy”, or “you use it to sleep”.

    During your child’s turns, notice the kinds of words or phrases s/he uses to describe each object. Does your child describe an object based on the materials it is made from? Does s/he describe an object’s function, or a larger category it belongs to (e.g. tool, furniture, toy)? How do the kinds of words you use in your own descriptions help your child to guess your object?

Research Spotlight

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