Topic: Cognitive Development
Location: Discovery Center


How do different kinds of gesture change what children pay attention to?
Research has shown that equivalent fractions, such as 3/4 and 6/8, are really difficult for children to learn. One reason for this is that children tend to pay more attention to the number of pieces (e.g. 3 in 3/4 and 6 in 6/8) as opposed to the actual proportion. This indicates that children are focusing on what is different between equivalent fractions, rather than what is the same. Our current research explores how different kinds of gesture may impact children’s understanding of equivalent fractions.
In this study, children (ages 57 years) will hear about a character that likes when his shapes are colored in a certain amount. Then, children will be shown the kinds of shapes that the character likes – all shapes will be colored in to the equivalent of 3/4, but sometimes they will appear as 3 out of 4 parts colored in and sometimes as 6 out of 8 parts colored in. When we use the label “three fourths” or “six eighths” children will see the experimenter gesture to highlight either (1) the number of separate pieces in the shape (3 or 6) by pointing to each piece separately or (2) the amount that is colored in by using a continuous gesture. Then, children will see some new shapes that have different proportions colored in, and will be asked which shapes they think the character would like, which shapes match each other, and which shapes have the largest portion colored in.
We are interested in seeing whether using different kinds of gestures, such as discrete pointing gestures or continuous amount gestures, will affect what information children pay attention to (e.g. number of pieces or total amount). This may help us learn more about how gesture can be used effectively when educating children about fractions.
This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Infant and Child Cognition Laboratory at Boston College.
» infant and Child Cognition Laboratory at Boston College
Activities to Try in the Discovery Center
Block Fractions
Gather a pile of blocks in the Physical Science area of the Discovery Center. Make a line of 2 short rectangular blocks, and a line of 1 long rectangular block (see image below). Show your child that both lines are the same length.
Now, show your child the shortest square blocks. Ask your child how many square blocks they think will equal 1 long block. Help them line up the square blocks to match the length of one long block. Then, ask your child how many square blocks they think will match 2 short rectangular blocks. Does your child think that the same number of square blocks will be required to match the length of 2 short rectangular blocks as was needed for 1 long rectangular block?
Activities to Try at Home
Making Change
Find 10 nickels, 5 dimes, and 2 quarters. Explain to your child that the total value of the money is $1.50. If your child is unfamiliar with the value of these coins, make sure to explain that each dime is worth 2 nickels, each quarter is worth 5 nickels, and all together they are worth 30 nickels.
Make 3 lines – one for each type of coin. Ask your child which line they think is worth the most money. Does your child believe that one line of coins is worth more than another line?
Try the same activity, but with equal numbers of coins (e.g. 5 nickels, 5 dimes, and 5 quarters). Does your child’s response change when you ask which line is worth more?