Museum of Science, Boston

New facial expressions

How do children learn to recognize new facial expressions?

Throughout their development, children must learn to recognize many different facial expressions. In addition, they have to learn labels for them (like, “happy”, “sad”, and “afraid”). Researchers still don’t know exactly how children learn to recognize and label all the different expressions that they see. In this study, we examine how children ages 2-4 years recognize new expressions they have never seen before.

To find out, we show children groups of three photographs, with each showing a person making an expressive face. Some of the expressions are recognizable emotions (like a happy or a sad face) and some of them are unrecognizable expressions (like a face with puffed out cheeks). We ask children to choose the face that matches either a real emotion word (“happy”) or a nonsense word (“tolen”).

Our results so far show that children can use the process of elimination to match a word they have never heard before with an expression they have never seen. This might help children learn labels for new expressions as they grow older.

This study may help adults better understand how children learn about new emotions.

Learn about other research related to Children's Understanding of Emotion.

This research is conducted by the Emotion Development Lab at Boston College

Try it at the Museum

Animal Expressions

Do animals express emotions too? Do they make the same expressions that people do? Find some animals around the Discovery Center and watch their faces. What do you think they are feeling? See if you and your child can label them using words that you know. Can you come up with new names for their expressions? How else might animals let others know that they are happy, angry, or afraid?

Try it at Home

Making Faces

Practice making faces with a friend or family member. Can you make your face look happy, sad, or angry? See if your partner can guess what emotion you are expressing. Now try to make a brand new expression that doesn’t match any emotion you’ve seen before. What would you call this new feeling?