UW News

May 28, 2015

How do preschoolers start learning science?

News and Information

One of the best ways children learn is by copying what they see others do. Now new research shows that this learning strategy can be used even with things that cannot be seen, including invisible scientific concepts.weight HPSS less crop

Weight, for example, is a concept that cannot be seen directly, and it puzzles most preschool-aged children. While they can figure out other more obvious properties about objects, such as their shape, color, or the sound they make, weight trips them up.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and Georgia State University devised a game to teach preschoolers about the property of weight.

“We’re not sure why preschoolers have such a hard time understanding weight,” said lead author Rebecca Williamson, an assistant psychology professor at Georgia State University. “But if we can find a way to teach this difficult concept to them, perhaps the same teaching methods would apply to other complex and invisible properties.”

Read more about the research here.

In the game, 3- and 4-year-olds watched an experimenter play with two sets of toys — four yellow rubber ducks or four plastic zebras. Within each set, the toys were visually identical, but they had a secret: two in each set were heavy, the other two were light.ducks 250

The children watched as the experimenter “hefted” each toy — lifting it and then moving it up and down with the hand as if weighing it, but without explaining to the child what they were doing.

Then, in some groups, the experimenter placed the objects into one of two bins, sorting them into heavy and light piles. To the child, it would appear that the researcher sorted the four toys into two pairs.

The researchers wanted to know if the children could learn the sort-by-weight rule just from watching the adults. To find out, they gave the children a new set of weighted toys to see if they would use the rule.

Kids who saw the sorting demonstration at age 3 showed no evidence that they learned from it, but by age 4, they did.

“The things children imitate reflect what they’re ready to learn,” Williamson said of the study published online April 8 in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

In a second study, published online May 13 in Frontiers in Psychology, the research team explored how children learned. The data showed that children were paying close attention to the adult’s “hefting” movements, and this may have helped them discover the underlying and invisible property of weight.

Also in the Frontiers paper, the researchers compared American and Chinese children and found that they performed similarly in this task. This suggests that children around the world at about 4 years of age are ready to use social models to teach them about weight.

“It’s an example of children using social observation and imitation to learn about fundamental properties of the physical world,” said co-author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS. “It vividly shows that children not only copy what we literally do, but make deeper inferences about why we’re doing things.”

The surprise in this study is how early in development children begin to be interested in the invisible properties of the world, such as weight. They inferred that some objects were heavier than others just by watching the adult’s hefting behavior.

The UW’s Ready Mind Project funded the research.