In Your 2-Year-Old: A ‘Genuine Decline in Relational Reasoning’

Flickr/Wes Peck cc license

Flickr/Wes Peck cc license

Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik showed kids a box that played music. Kids turned it on by placing the right pair of blocks on top. For some kids, any two different blocks would turn on the music box and for other kids, any two same blocks would start the music. Gopnik showed them how it worked, demonstrating a pair of blocks (same or different) that made the box play music and also a pair of blocks that left the box silent. She did it again, placing correct and incorrect pairs of blocks onto the music box, which played or didn’t play music. Then she asked kids to help her activate the box, offering the choice between a pair of “same” and a pair of “different” blocks to turn on the toy.

Three-year-olds couldn’t do it – they didn’t recognize that the “same” or “different” relationship between blocks was what caused the music. But 18-to-30-month-olds did. Unlike 3-year-olds, who did no better than random guessing, the study’s youngest participants were able to point to blocks that would turn on the music box 78 percent of the time.Gopnik calls this, “evidence for a genuine decline in relational reasoning between 18 and 48 months of age.” A paper describing the study is currently in press at the journal Cognitive Science.

Of course, humans eventually regain the ability to see the relationships between things. You can probably imagine that if you saw that a pair of pyramids and a pair of cubes activated a music box, but a cube and a pyramid or a pyramid and a sphere did not, you’d get the point. But there is a U-shaped curve in this brain skill in which kids can do it, then they can’t, and eventually they can again.

This seems like ticky-tack technical stuff until you start to consider what it might mean. It might, in fact, be an illustration of how and when a child learns to think.

Gopnik suggests that one reason 2-year-olds may lose their ability to see that a relationship between things can cause something is that, at the same time, they are solidifying their understanding that individual things themselves cause other things. Touching a bubble makes it pop. Flipping a light switch makes it bright. Showing bacon to a dog makes him drool. The same is true of a dad. This understanding of cause-and-effect is a major underpinning of logic.

Only, it may be that kids start to “think” before they’re able to think about their thinking; it may be that kids become so blinkered by the idea that a thing causes another thing, that they can’t imagine the possibility that in this case it’s the relationship between things that leads to the effect. Which block makes the box play music? It must be one of them!

Younger kids, without this bludgeon of logical certainty, are able to open their minds to a kind of intuition that lets them understand (maybe without really understanding) that it’s the relationship between blocks that activates the music box. Because they don’t “think” about it, they don’t come up with incorrect theories.

At least in the unscientific sample of my two kids, that sounds about right: When they were very young, they just kind of let the world wash over them, pawns to the subconscious. Then at age 3, you could see them start to think, and they used this new skill to create pretty steadfast confidence in things that weren’t actually true. Finally at around age 5, they tamed this dark and powerful magic of “thinking” and started to be able to evaluate their confidence in things — they became able to know what they knew and also know what they didn’t know, allowing the existence of other possibilities.

Maybe Gopnik’s finding that kids lose and regain relational reasoning is due to the messy on-boarding of our system of logic?

While this question is being sorted, it seems like we might all be able to play with this at home. I suggest silverware. Tonight I’m going to show my kids a fork and a spoon, and then distribute a chocolate chip. Then I’m going to show them two spoons, which does not elicit a chocolate chip. I wonder how many trials it will take before they recognize that “different” silverware earns a treat?

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Does Following LEGO Instructions Make Kids Less Creative?

Image: Flickr/Do-Hyun Kim cc license

Image: Flickr/Do-Hyun Kim cc license

In a community of LEGO-building parents, it’s only a matter of time before someone bemoans the idea that “when we were little” we all had trunks of loose bricks that we used to build the shapes and ships and castles and constructions of our imaginations (usually after walking home from school, three miles, uphill, and in the snow). Chances are, if you close your eyes, you can hear the distinctive sound of your hand running through a pile of bricks. For many of us, it was the soundtrack of childhood.

Now, increasingly, the soundtrack is the one-time pouring of pieces into a small pile, followed by the riffling of the instruction sheet. How many completed kits are still sitting on a high shelf in your child’s room, months or years after being built?

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How to Test Creativity With a Single Word

Chair

Image: Flickr/Glasseyes View cc license

Get ready to think of a creative verb. Now, what action comes to mind when you look at the picture that heads this article? When you saw this chair, did you say “sit”? A Yale University study shows that you’re probably more creative if you said “stand” – the “distance” between a given noun and the verb you pair with it is a darn good measure of your overall creativity.

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Priming Studies Show Girls Still on Receiving End of Negative Math Stereotypes (and Also How To Help)

Kestrel.Scientist

She likes math. I sure hope it stays that way.

When we hike, my daughter wants to play math quiz. I ask her things like, “If there are eight legs in a family that includes one dog, how many people are in the family?” And this helps take her mind off the miles. She likes math. She thinks she’s good at it. And I’m terrified that as she goes through school, her confidence and eventually her skills will start to erode.

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Data Mining 614 Letters to Santa Claus

Image: Flickr/ Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar cc license

Image: Flickr/ Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar cc license

The Universal Postal Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations, counted more than 6 million letters to Santa Claus sent in its most recent, 2007 survey. But in the immortal words of Austin Powers, “Whoop-de-doo! What does it all mean, Basil?” ‘Tis the season of nostalgia and so to discover the meaning of kids’ Santa Claus letters, we turn to the ghost of Christmas past, namely a 1994 study published in the Journal of Popular Culture that mined 614 letters to Santa Claus delivered through the post office of a major city in the U.S. Southwest.

After chucking all the letters that were obviously written by an adult for a child, those that were illegible, and those that were deemed to be gift lists written by adults pretending to be children (imagine the implications…), the researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were left with exactly 344 notes — written by children expressing their deepest desires.

In these 344 letters were 2,475 gift requests for an average 7.2 gifts per letter — boys requested slightly fewer at 6.7 and girls slightly more at 7.7 per child. Almost exactly half of these were branded requests — not just a talking doll, but a “Tickle Me Elmo” and not just a magic kit but the “Magic Circle Deluxe Box of Tricks” and not just laser tag guns, but the “Sega Lock On” system. Interestingly, the longer the list, the higher percentage of the items likely to come with specific brand requests.

Here’s another interesting part: despite a fairly equal number of brands available to boys and girls, and despite a fairly equal percentage of toys requested by brand name by boys and girls, boys tended to cluster their requests in only the top few brands, while girls spread their brand requests over a wider range of brands.

“Boys may be more concerned that the brand-named gifts they request are more popular (and thus more desired) among their peers,” the authors write.

That said, while girls spread their love among brands, they did not spread it among categories of toys, with the vast majority of requests from this (hopefully bygone…) era being for dolls or for “New Kids on the Block,” which the researchers note were “themselves dolls that represented the individual band members.” (Another note: an eBay search returns a full set of 5 NKOTB action figures still in packages selling for $60, and you can buy just Dannie and Donnie now for $13.19!) Girls were also more willing to cross the gender boundary than were boys, with 49 requests for “boy brands” from the girls and only 4 requests for “girl brands” from the boys.

Does all this mean that “boys are more concerned with acquiring popular, brand-name items than girls?” the researchers ask. Are boys and not girls are more bound by the perceptions of what they “should” want? Or are boys more susceptible to the advertisements of the big brand names, which did, in fact, receive the lion’s share of the brand requests?

“Given that the Santa Claus myth appears to be an integral — and perhaps even sacred — part of the celebration of Christmas in American culture, studies exploring the issues raised in this study would certainly seem warranted,” the researchers write.

God bless us, everyone.

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WATCH: Automatic Rubik’s Cube Solver

Take a click and slow jam with me: the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that without the addition of work, the entropy of a system will increase. In other words, left alone a system becomes more disordered: molecules disperse, heat homogenizes, and if you drop a Rubik’s Cube, it ain’t real likely to solve itself. Instead, random processes applied to this best selling toy of all time tend to increase its disorder. Of the 350 million Rubik’s Cubes sold to date, how many do you think are sitting at the bottom of the toy box or even on the kitchen counter, unsolved? According to this lovely 2nd Law, the correct answer is lots.

The Boulder startup Kitables is out to change that.

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The Employee Dogs and Asymmetric Facial Hair of SparkFun’s New Building

Sparkfun.2

The offspring pretending they are SparkFun engineers.

I’m more science geek than technology geek, but lately I’ve been doing my best — learning how to solder and code by building SparkFun kits along with my kids (6 and 8), first the WeevilEye, then Herbie the little mouse kit and now into the world of Arduino. (My daughter, Kestrel, bounces off furniture and people and walls as if she were the cue ball of a billiards trick shot, but she’ll sit and solder for a straight hour.) What this means is that instead of looking at soldering kits from the perspective of an electrical engineer who, I’m sure, sees these kits as simple teaching tools, I’m completely flabbergasted along with my kids when Herbie hits a wall and his electrical whiskers make the mouse turn. Wow! When we reach the great moment of flipping the switch to “on,” my armpits sweat.

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Story Time From Space: Astronauts Read Science-Based Kid’s Books!


In 2010, astronomer and author Jeffrey Bennett answered a call from a number he didn’t recognize. The voice on the other end told him that astronaut Alvin Drew wanted to read one of Bennett’s books from space — Drew needed a pdf.

“It took some convincing to make me believe it wasn’t a prank,” Bennett said last week when we met for coffee in Boulder, CO.

On the other end of the phone that day was Patricia Tribe. She’d been Director of Education at Space Center Houston and was working to design science curriculum that would appeal to school districts that had their noses to the grindstone of literacy. Bennett’s books hit two birds with one stone: the engaging stories of Bennett’s Rottweiler, Max, can be read as animal adventures in space or appreciated for the very real science content that frames Max’s adventures.

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Under the Seat (To the Tune “Under the Sea”)

Image of shucked Sebastian courtesy of Nat Tarbox via Flickr cc license

Image of shucked Sebastian courtesy of Nat Tarbox via Flickr cc license

Dads, listen to me. The driver’s seat, it’s a mess. But life under the seat is more terrifying than anything we’ve got up here.

[Cue marimba]

The mucor is always greenest, just after a three-week wait

You dream about pristine floor mats, but that is a big mistake

Just look at the world beneath you, right there in your kids’ back seat

Such wonderful things surround them. What’s this, oh it’s mystery meat!

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Calculating the MPG of an EV

Leaf

Blatant hero shot

The other day I was piloting the after-activity transport shuttle and my 8-year-old, Leif, really, really had to pee. There wasn’t an easy pull-off and so I tried to explain that the irony of a boy named Leif peeing in the back seat of a car named Leaf would make the act of urinating in the back seat like crossing the streams in the movie Ghostbusters, which he has thus far been too frightened to watch and so maybe wasn’t the most effective analogy.

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