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Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D.

Kristina R Olson Ph.D.

The Earth is Round…Except for the Edges

Children’s misunderstandings of what the world looks like

One four-year-old's view of the earth and her location inside it.

If you ask your child what shape the world is, and your child has started school, she’s likely to say that the world is round. This answer typically makes parents and teachers proud of all that their children know. But research has suggested we shouldn’t be too proud, because while it appears children seem to understand that to be the right answer, they haven’t actually integrated this answer into their view of the world.

Some really neat work by Stella Vosniadou has investigated the question of what children actually believe the world is like. She has found that while children can often parrot back that the world is round, when their claims are pushed, children’s understanding begins to crumble. In fact, by asking children to draw pictures while also narrating their answers to these questions, she finds some pretty hilarious answers. For example, many children, when prompted to draw the earth, will design pictures in which the otherwise round earth has a nice flat spot at the top—coincidentally enough, right where they live. So this explains why, despite the world being round, they in fact experience it as flat. Yet another segment of children indicate the world is round yet insist that the world has an edge, over which you can fall (at least until you land on another planet—their words, not mine). A third segment of children have a view that the world is round, but that we actually live inside the round part (the drawing above, as well as the artist’s accompanying narrative, are one such example). Many of these theories suggest that children believe you can walk off of the earth or bump into wall, Truman Show style.

You can try this experiment at home—ask your child to draw what the whole world looks like. Once that’s done, ask your child to add himself to the picture right where he’s standing. If the drawing of your child is in the center, ask him if he is inside the circle or on the outside (if he’s on the top of the circle is more obvious he’s on the outside, but if he draws himself in the center it’s unclear if he lives on top of the circle or inside of it). Now ask your child to draw a person in China (or if you are in a location outside of North America, offer another place halfway around the world). Does this person appear also on the top or somewhere else? Next ask your child to add the stars, sun and other planets. Does he appear to understand these surround earth (indicating an understanding of the universe) or are they only right above the earth and presumably above the child’s head? Finally, for fun, ask your child what would happen if he decided to walk and walk and walk. If he suggests an ocean would appear, ask what if he had a boat and could keep going. Does your child say that he’d get back to where he is (suggesting he has internalized the world as round) or instead that he’d eventually run into something or off of the edge?

What do these kinds of experiments tell us beyond the fact that children’s view of the earth is wrong? Well this is one in a line of studies showing that while we often teach children (and adults) rules of physics, astronomy, or biology, and children can repeat that information back, they often have difficulty integrating this information into their experience. They do take the new information to heart, but this information is so inconsistent with their own view of the world that they can’t quite rectify the two views. Elements of their initial view (e.g., the pre-school view of the world as flat) often remain. However, after much exposure to an idea, some amount of hypothesis testing or falsification data (e.g., they never hear of people falling off of the earth), and more consideration, most children will eventually develop an updated understanding of the world—it just takes a while. Excitingly, interdisciplinary researchers have been pairing with educators to try to develop ways for children to learn these concepts more quickly and thoroughly. One example is the Round Earth Project at the University of Illinois Chicago which uses virtual reality to help children experience the roundness of the earth. This continues to be a domain in which research from psychology departments can be integrated into curricular development to improve education—empirically-supported education!