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Kids Learn That Robots Are Not Just Things

Where do children learn about complex objects, like robots? From their parents.

Sven Volkens via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Sven Volkens via Wikimedia Commons

One of the difficult things that children have to do is to figure out the types of things they can expect from the things in their world. This is actually a complex task.

Children have to learn that objects like tables, chairs, and cars take up physical space and are made of materials and parts. These objects do not typically move on their own without being controlled by someone, and they don’t have thoughts or feelings.

They have to learn that animals do move on their own and have thoughts and feelings in addition to a complex internal structure. Also, children learn that people use language and think complex thoughts.

On top of that, there are complex objects like robots that seem to have some properties of both objects and animals. They do move on their own and seem to sense the world, though they may not have complicated thoughts or feelings.

How do children learn about complex objects like robots? This question was explored in an interesting paper in a 2016 paper in the journal Cognitive Development by Jennifer Jipson, Selin Gulgoz, and Susan Gelman.

In their study, they had 3 and 5-year-old children sit with their parents and play with a toy car, a real rat, and a toy dog each for five minutes. The rat was in the cage, so the parent and child could observe its behavior and talk about it. During this free play time, the interactions between parents and children were recorded.

After that, the children and their parents were asked a series of questions about whether each of the objects had biological properties (can it grow?), psychological properties (can it think?) and sensory properties (can it see?). Between a third and a half of the children had extensive experience with robotic dogs already.

The children had extensive interactions with their parents about each of the items. They were most talkative about the rat, which is consistent with many studies that children are particularly interested in living things.

The language that parents and children used to talk about the robot made it seem a bit like an object and a bit like a living thing. For objects, parents and their children often talked about their physical properties and that the objects were breakable. For living things, parents and children talked about biological properties (like breathing), sensory properties (like hearing) and psychological properties (like thinking or choosing). For robots, all of these types of properties were discussed.

When asked about the properties of the robot, parents tended to treat them like objects. That is, they generally denied that the robot had biological or psychological properties, and few of them wanted to grant the robot sensory abilities.

The children acted differently. The 3-year-old children tended to assume that both objects and robots have some psychological and sensory properties. The 5-year-olds recognized that the toy car did not have psychological or sensory abilities. However, they still assumed that the robot had some sensory and psychological abilities.

Although the interaction between parents and children with each of the objects were brief, there was some relationship between what parents and children discussed and the beliefs that children expressed later. In particular, the youngest children were most likely to assume the robot dog had sensory and to some extent psychological abilities the more that they talked about these properties with parents. These results suggest that children learn most from their parents about properties that they cannot see directly.

Ultimately, children learn about objects in their world both by interacting with those objects, by discussing them with parents, teachers, and friends, and by seeing them portrayed in stories, movies, and television. Children may be able to explore some of the physical properties of physical objects on their own, but they need help from other people to help them understand many unobservable properties. Robots are a particularly interesting type of object in this context because they have the physical properties of objects, but act more like animals and humans.

Art Markman is the author of the new book Brain Briefs, as well as Smart Thinking, Habits of Leadership, and Smart Change. His radio show, Two Guys on Your Head, is on KUT. For more: See Twitter, Facebook, and Google+

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