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With Right Explanations, Young Kids Grasp Complex Scientific Concepts

With Right Explanations, Young Kids Grasp Complex Scientific ConceptsYoung elementary school children are capable of understanding complex scientific concepts — such as natural selection — when you cater to their natural human drive for a good explanation, according to Boston University researchers. Their findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

It is generally assumed that natural selection is so complex — so beyond the grasp of young children — that educational standards suggest it not be taught comprehensively until ages 13 to 18.  But Boston University psychologist Dr. Deborah Kelemen and her team wanted to see if very young students (ages five to eight) could grasp the process at all.

The researchers developed a 10-page picture storybook that covered the idea of natural selection with a group of fictional mammals with long trunks, called pilosas.

The story introduced students to natural selection with the following predicament: The pilosas use their trunks to catch insects. In the past, most of the pilosas had wide trunks. Only a few had thin trunks. Then extreme climate change drove most of the insects underground, into long, narrow tunnels where only the pilosas with thin trunks could reach them.

So how did the pilosas evolve over time from a group of animals having trunks of varying widths to those with thin trunks predominating? Much to the researchers’ surprise, the children who heard the story about the pilosas completely got it.

“We’re still astonished by what we found,” said Kelemen. “It shows that kids are a lot smarter than we ever give them credit for. They can handle a surprising degree of complexity when you frame things in a way that taps into the natural human drive for a good, cohesive explanation.”

The conventional wisdom is that young children should be taught only isolated facts — such as that food is needed for survival or that animals have useful body parts — without tying the facts together into an explanation of how or why it works. The researchers, however, make the case that giving explanations and tying facts together early on may help avoid learning problems later on.

“Young children are natural explanation-seekers,” said Kelemen. Sometime around preschool, they start intuitively thinking that natural phenomena exist for a purpose or operate by design.

To an eight-year-old, it makes perfect sense to think that rivers exist so crocodiles have a place to live, or that giraffes have long necks so they can reach leaves high in the trees.

During the study, not only were the kids able to understand how pilosas evolved, but they were also able to generalize the concept. In other words, they applied what they learned from the pilosas to other species of novel animals, even three months later.

“Most picture books that hint at natural selection only further confuse kids,” Kelemen said. They anthropomorphize the animals, leave out important facts and give up on explanations altogether. Or the books are so flashy the kids can’t focus on the story.

“All kinds of bells and whistles are often built into storybooks,” Kelemen said. “Everyone thinks that is going to make the storybook fun for the kid.”

Before developing the pilosa book, the researchers combined what they knew as developmental psychologists with research on science education.

They invented fictional animals so that children wouldn’t have any pre-conceived ideas. They kept the story and the pictures simple. The narrative about how the pilosas lived and died — and the explanation of how and why they evolved over time — unfolded gradually, with one biological fact logically connecting to the next.

“I had one child say to me, ‘Wow, I think my head is going to explode I learned so much today,’” said co-author Natalie Emmons, Ph.D.

Source:  Boston University

Young child thinking about complex concepts photo by shutterstock.

With Right Explanations, Young Kids Grasp Complex Scientific Concepts

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). With Right Explanations, Young Kids Grasp Complex Scientific Concepts. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 12 Mar 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.