How Children Use Information About Why Things Work

Children use causal information about the world to help them learn labels.

Posted Jan 13, 2015

When children are about 3-years-old, one of the big things they need to do is to learn about the huge variety of objects in the world around them. Not only does this learning help them to make sense of the world, but is crucial for children to learn the labels we use for different objects so that they can talk about those objects again in the future.

Indeed, starting when children are about a year-and-a-half old, they start learning lots of labels for new objects. That pattern continues for a few years after that.

A fascinating paper by Amy Booth in the January 2015 issue of Cognitive Development explored the role of causal information in learning words for new objects. Causal information is knowledge about the way the world works. 

Figure 1 of Booth (2015) showing the materials shown to the children.

Previous research suggests that when children find out something about the way an object works, they learn about the object faster than when they learn some other property about it like what it looks like. The materials used in this study are shown in the picture attached to this blog entry. This picture is Figure 1 from the article. 

The novel objects were described with a label that the children would not have heard before (like Kulloo or Gippit). The causal information focused on the function of the object. For example, the Gippit was described as being used to make circles on walls. The non-causal information (which Booth called “causally weak” to be careful not to assume that children would not make any guesses about causal information) was that Gippits always have circles painted on the bottom.  

Children were shown each object and were told the causal or noncausal fact about it. They were then told the label.  On each block of the study, children practiced the label several times. They continued learning until they could correctly remember which label went with each object. They were tested by hearing the label and pointing to the object it went with. 

The causal information made the label easier to learn. Children learned to identify the label that went with the object in fewer trials when it was associated with information about the function of the object than when it was associated with a hidden feature of the object. 

By the end of this part of the study, though, the children had learned the labels equally well regardless of which information they heard. It just took them longer to learn it when they got feature information than when they got causal information.

The key question, though, is why the causal information helps. One possibility is that causal information is particularly interesting to 3-year-olds, and so it causes them to pay more attention to the object and the label, and so they learn the label faster. A second possibility is that the causal information provides a deep set of connections to existing knowledge and so children actually remember the labels better when they were connected to causal information than when they were connected to features. 

To test this possibility the children were brought back to the lab 2 to 3 weeks after the first session.  They were tested on the labels again. 

If the causal information just causes children to pay more attention to the object and the label, then two weeks later, children should be equally good at remembering which label went with each object regardless of the other information they heard about the object, because they had learned the labels equally well by the end of the first part of the study.

However, if the causal information is enriching the connection between the object and the child’s other knowledge, then children should remember labels associated with causal features better than those associated with non-causal features.

In fact, the children remembered the labels equally well regardless of the kind of information they learned when they encountered the object for the first time. This research suggests that children find causal knowledge interesting, and when they hear about functions of objects, they pay more attention than if they just hear about other features. Once they learn the label for an object, though, they remember it later, even if they hadn’t learned about the function of the object.

This finding suggest that it is valuable to teach children about functions at the same time that we teach them about the names for objects. This causal information helps children to understand a little more about the way the world works. It also makes it easier for kids to learn the labels for objects, which makes it easier for the children to talk about those objects later.

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