Museum of Science, Boston

An Infant Revolution

The research in this section describes the unique techniques used by scientists who study infants’ cognitive abilities, and the ways that you can be a scientist yourself, either in the museum or in your own home! Although Living Laboratory does not currently host infant studies at the Museum, we provide sample research toys and activities that parents and other caregivers can use to explore infant cognition for themselves.

If you are interested in learning more about the awesome power of babies' minds, Alison Gopnik (UC Berkley) has two great books out in paper back and for kindle: The Scientist in the Crib & The Philosophical Baby. Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek's book Einstein Never Used Flashcards also describes the science for regular people. In 2006, the New Yorker ran an excellent piece titled The Baby Lab: How Elizabeth Spelke Peers into the Infant Mind in which Dr. Spelke - a Living Laboratory collaborator - describes the current state of infant research from her own unique perspective.

Legs and Wheels

How do children classify animate objects?

Cognitive researcher Dr. David Rakison and his students at Carnegie Mellon University study how children group objects and form categories. This study examined how infants - aged 14, 18, and 22 months - develop the ability to classify, an essential scientific reasoning skill.

Children were allowed to play on their own with a set of eight toys. In one condition, the set consisted of unmodified toys: four ‘animals’ and four ‘vehicles’. In another condition, the toys were two ‘animals’, two ‘vehicles’, and several modified toys: two ‘animals with wheels’ and two ‘vehicles with legs’. Parents were instructed not to interfere with their children’s play during the experiment. The play sessions were recorded and researchers reviewed the film to determine the order in which children touched the toys.

This study revealed that, when presented with the unmodified toys, children grouped the toys according to whether they were animals or vehicles. However, when presented with the modified toys toys, children at 14 months and 18 months of age classified the objects based on whether the toy ‘had legs’ or ‘had wheels’. In contrast, the 22 month olds classified the objects based on the “body” of the toy – placing animals with legs in the same group as animals with wheels.

Additional research, also conducted at Dr. Rakison's lab, revealed that children as young as 5 months old exhibit classification abilities, indicating that the development of scientific reasoning skills begins at a very young age.

Other Resources

Read one of Dr. Rakison's published papers related to this research or visit the Rakison Lab website.

Learn about other research related to An Infant Revolution.

This research is conducted by the Infant Cognition Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.

Try it at the Museum

Want to try Rakison's experiment for yourself?

Toys similar to those used in Dr. Rakison's experiments are available in the Discovery Center. 'animals with wheels' and 'trucks with legs', along with 'normal' animals and vehicles are available for you and your child to explore and discuss.

There are a number of activities that you can try with your family - even older children and adults - in order to gain insight into how people classify. Notice the order in which your child touches the toys. Ask your child how they would decide which toys belong in the same group. Try asking your child what noises the toys make, or how each toy moves. Let us know what your child does. We would love to talk with your about your observations!

Discovery Center volunteers are also on-hand to answer your questions, describe the work of our research collaborators, or conduct a 'study' with your child as you watch and observe their classification skills in action. All of this allows our grownup visitors to discover more about how cognitive scientists are learning so much about how children learn- even before kids can talk!

Classify the toys with your family when you visit the Museum.

How do older children of varying ages classify the toys? Do adults classify the toys in the same way?

Try to predict how your child would classify these toys. How would you classify them?

How many different ways can you and your family think of to make two groups of toys that share characteristics?

Try it at Home

Kitchen Classification

Pick a set of objects that you and your child use everyday, like kitchen utensils or clothing. Talk with your child about the different ways you can make groups of these objects. What do all of the objects have in common? What materials are they made from? Who uses them? When are they used? What other features can you use to classify this stuff?

Practice in classifying not only helps you and your child notice patterns in the objects you use, it also can help improve a child's language and math skills. Help your child think of describing words, and introduce them to new words: Is 'rough' the same as 'scratchy'? What is another word you use to describe things that are 'shiny'? How many spatulas do you have? Are they all the same? What are some differences between them? Together, you and your child can practice using the science skills that they will need to continue their explorations and experiments far into the school years and beyond!