Museum of Science, Boston

Math and Language Cognition

Language and math are important tools that allow humans to better understand the world around them, and communicate with one another. Some cognitive scientists are interested in learning more about how children develop language skills and conceptions about basic math principles, and how the development of math and language skills in early childhood might be interrelated.

Spatial Reasoning

How do toddlers conceptualize words that indicate spatial relationships?

We use language to describe where things are all the time (i.e.: “the glass is to the left of the telephone”). Children have to learn which words to use when describing spatial relationships in varying contexts.

This study asks: how do 4 year-olds conceptualize imaginary spatial words?

Children are introduced to the imaginary words, “ziv” and “kern,” which have two possible meanings: “front” and “back,” or “north” and “south.” Children play games with a researcher in order to determine which meaning children apply to the imaginary words. For example, the researcher may point to different sides of a doll’s head while calling it either the “ziv” or “kern” side. Then, the doll is rotated and the child is asked to point to the “ziv” side or the “kern” side.

A child’s responses help us determine which meaning s/he applied to the imaginary words. For example, if a child thinks the “ziv” side of the doll means “front” side, then s/he would point to the front side of the doll, regardless of the direction it is facing. In contrast, if a child thinks the “ziv” side means “north” side, then s/he might point to the front or back of the doll, as long as that side is facing “north.”

We predict that some children will think that the words mean “north” and “south,” and others will think the words mean “front” and “back.” By looking at how children’s ideas about these words change with age, we hope to better understand how they think about space and language.

Learn about other research related to Math and Language Cognition.

This research is conducted by the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University

Try it at the Museum

Build a tower just like mine!

Challenge your child to build a tower that looks exactly like one that you build, using only verbal instructions. You can keep your child from seeing your tower by building a block wall. Describe what size and shape blocks your child needs for his/her tower, and in what order, direction, and orientation they should go.

Is your child able to build a tower that looks exactly like yours? How is it different or the same?

What verbal commands are most useful for helping your child complete the task?

Try it at Home

Play the Hokey Pokey!

Play a game of hokey pokey with your child and pay attention to how s/he follows your directions. Stand facing your child as you give instructions for the game, such as “put your right hand in.”

Is your child able to move the correct parts of his/her body in the game?

When playing, does your child put out the hand you ask for, or the one that mirrors your movements?

Fronts and Sides

At home, take a doll and place a toy in front of the doll and one behind it. Ask your child to give you the toy that is behind the doll. Next, place the toys to the left and right of the doll and ask for the toy to the left of it.

In each turn, from which side does your child give you the toy? Is your child able to successfully give you the toy from the side you asked for?

Does your child seem to find it easier to distinguish between “left and right” or “front and back”?