How do children reason about what makes things happen?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Previous studies have shown that children are very good at learning about different types of cause and effect relationships that occur in their everyday life. We also know that children can learn to use tools to make things happen by watching the way people interact with objects (e.g., using a remote control to turn on a television). In this study, we are interested in understanding what information children use to learn about tools and how this changes as they get older.

    In this study, children (ages 6 months – 3 years) are shown an event they have not seen before (e.g., a toy that lights up). The event either appears to happen spontaneously, or we provide a clear causal explanation for how the toy works using a tool (e.g., we make the light turn on by pressing a button). Then, we change either the type of tool available, the way we act on the tool (purposefully or accidentally), or whether the tool is connected to the toy. Children then explore the toy on their own and we observe how they play with it in order to understand whether children think the tool will make the toy produce the effect.

    We are interested in determining: 1) whether children try to learn how the toy works when the effect occurs spontaneously; 2) whether children have expectations about what objects and actions are more likely make an effect happen; and 3) whether children form these expectations innately as they age, or if these expectations are developed through trial and error.

    This research will help us better understand how children learn to make things work in their everyday life.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Paul Muentener, Assistant Professor at Tufts University

        » Paul Muentener

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Interactive Aquarium

    In the Infant Area, find the Interactive Aquarium’s cause-effect touchpads. Press on a pad and draw your child’s attention to what happens. Repeat this a few times. Then, make a show of pressing the pad, but place your hand near it without actually pressing. Does your child look for something to happen? Is s/he surprised that nothing does? Explore the pads: What effect does each pad create? Are there any pads that do the same thing?

    Electricity Bench

    On the 2nd floor of the Discovery Center, find the Electricity Bench. Try connecting two wires to a bulb and watch it light up. What happens if you break the connection between the three pieces? What about if you change the order the pieces are connected in? Explore what happens when you change one of the wire blocks for another. Does the bulb still light up? Work with your child to find out which blocks light the bulb and which ones do not.

    Activities to Try at Home

    What Does This Button Do?

    Every activity you do with your child – whether playing, reading, cooking or cleaning – is an opportunity to explore cause and effect. Ask your child what happens when they push a button on a television set: Does the effect happens immediately or does it takes a while? Explore reasons there may be a delay. Then try using the remote control. Do the same things happen with the remote as when the buttons are pushed on the set? Does the remote work from a few feet away? From across the room? From another room?

Research Spotlight

Contact Living Laboratory staff:

livinglaboratory@mos.org