Why do children believe in the improbable and extraordinary?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Children are often introduced to new objects and events that seem improbable. Previous research has shown that young children typically say that improbable things are impossible. In contrast, many older children and adults report that improbable things are possible, but unlikely. We are exploring which factors (e.g., children’s imagination, what children are taught, and the context of the information) influence children’s decisions about whether unlikely things are possible.

    In this study, children will be introduced to novel objects, animals, or scenarios, each of which has an improbable feature. Then, we will provide children with a reason to think that the improbable feature is possible (e.g., a person will tell them it is true, they will be asked to imagine it is true, etc.). We then ask children to tell us what they believe about the event or object and its features.

    As children get older, their experiences and background knowledge (including the capacity to imagine and exposure to formal education) change and may influence what they think is true or possible.

    These studies will help us learn how and why children’s belief in the improbable develops.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Early Childhood Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

        » Early Childhood Lab

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    The Amazing Gecko

    Find the leopard gecko in the Biology Area of the Discovery Center. Tell your child some true facts about this gecko to see how s/he responds.

    For example, if the leopard gecko’s tail gets caught, it can make its tail fall off and then grow a new one! This gecko can also blink. Most other types of geckos can’t! Leopard geckos do lack one ability other geckos have – other geckos have special toes that allow them to climb up glass walls, but leopard geckos have nails to help them climb trees. Does your child believe these statements are true? Compare your child’s reaction with your own.

    Activities to Try at Home

    Can That Really Happen?

    Young children often say that improbable phenomena (which they haven’t seen first-hand) are impossible. Show your child each of the pictures below and ask, “Can someone paint polka dots on an airplane? Can someone make purple applesauce? Can someone own a lion for a pet? Can someone drink onion juice?” Ask why s/he thinks each of these scenarios can (or cannot) occur. Compare your child’s answers to your own, or try this with another family member of a different age.

Research Spotlight

Contact Living Laboratory staff:

livinglaboratory@mos.org