Museum of Science, Boston

Natural Selection

Can children learn about natural selection through picture storybooks?

Many teachers believe that elementary school children need to learn basic ideas about animals and their habitats before they are ready to understand natural selection in high school. In our research, we want to know whether picture storybooks can help children learn about the theory of natural selection at younger ages, and whether the entire theory, rather than just isolated facts, can be introduced to children much earlier.

In this study, we show children (ages 5-8) some pictures of unfamiliar animals (e.g., some imaginary animals called “hemmies” that have beaks). We tell children a story about how the animals changed over time, and then we ask children some questions about the story (e.g., “How did hemmies go from being animals with beaks of all different sizes a long time ago to animals with long beaks now?”). Finally, to find out if children can apply their knowledge to another situation, we show children pictures of another group of unfamiliar animals whose bodies have changed over time and ask them how they think it happened.

In previous research, we found that storybooks like these helped elementary school children learn and remember information about natural selection. However, children did not gain an understanding that natural selection is a lengthy process that occurs over many generations, not just one generation. We hope that by refining versions of these stories, we can teach children that natural selection takes time and many generations to occur.

This research will help us to develop teaching materials for early elementary school children to help them learn about important scientific concepts like natural selection.

Learn about other research related to Learning From Others.

This research is conducted by the Child Cognition Lab at Boston University

Try it at the Museum


Take a look at some of the live animals in the Discovery Center. What do the animals have in common with one another? What is different about each species? Think of as many similarities as you can, and as many differences. How do you think each type of animal changed over time?

Try it at Home

Learning with Pictures

Using pictures to illustrate a story can help you learn and remember new ideas. Try reading storybooks to your child that have pictures, and ones that do not. Which stories does your child remember later?

Try drawing pictures to go along with events from your daily life – a fun activity you did together, a new animal you learned about together, or a trip to a museum. Do the pictures help you to remember the event later?