New research suggests that when children ask 'what is this?' they may seek an object's function

03/17/04

In the way magic eye posters simultaneously hide and reveal the main point of the picture, new research suggests that children might well be asking more than their simply-worded questions seem to indicate.

Normally, adults assume that when children ask, "What is this?" in reference to an object, they are seeking merely a name--some kind of label to help differentiate the elements of their rapidly burgeoning universes. However, a new study explored the possibility that children posing such a question might actually be seeking the object's function, not simply its name. These findings by Swarthmore College researchers Deborah Kemler Nelson, Morghan Holt and Louisa Chan Egan will be published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

The study separated two-, three-, and four-year-olds into two groups, and allowed the children in each group to inquire about unfamiliar artifacts. In one group, questions were answered with the name of the object; in the other, its function was provided. Regardless of age, children were inclined to follow up with supplemental questions about an object when they were told only its name. However, the children given thorough, functional information seemed more satisfied with the response.

Moreover, children receiving only an object's name tended to rephrase their questions over the course of the session in an attempt to elicit more functional information. These results suggest that young children might well be interested in and capable of distinguishing objects by more than just a superficial classification.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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