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.


Do children and adults think of ‘randomness’ in the same way?

Adults have certain ideas about what seems random in the world. For example, many adults have had the experience of flipping a coin and trying to guess which side of the coin will end up on top—either the “heads” side (H) or the “tails” side (T). Most adults would identify the coin flip sequence of HTTHT as appearing more random than a sequence that looks more uniform, i.e.: THTHT. Although any sequence of five coin flips is equally likely, some sequences feel more random than others.

This study asks: are children’s ideas about randomness similar to adults, and how do their ideas change with age?

Children, ages 3 to 8 years, are shown a red marble and a blue marble, which are both placed in a bag by the experimenter. The experimenter then shakes up the bag, pours one marble out into an opaque container, and asks the child to make a guess about the color of that marble. This guessing game is repeated five times.

By looking at the types of predictions children tend to generate at different ages, researchers had hoped to determine how children’s estimates of randomness change over time, and at what age these changes begin. However, initial results revealed that children of many ages tended to produce alternating responses- that is, they just go back and forth in a pattern (e.g. "HTHTH").

Therefore, researchers recently introduced a new game, in this game the experimenter tries to guess which of 2 cards the child has chosen. In this version, the child's goal is to "stump" the experimenter, and so children should choose based on his or her best efforts to have the experimenter guess incorrectly.

We predict that, in this new game, children may diverge from their typically alternating responses (e.g. "HTHTH"), and attempt more "random" sequences, if they realize this pattern is predictable.

Learn about other research related to Math and Language Cognition.

This research is conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT

Try it at the Museum

Explore the Lite Brite

Create a colorful pattern at the Lite Brite exhibit using the orange, red, blue, and yellow pegs. Without letting your child see which color you choose, take a peg and ask him/her what color peg you have hiding in your hand. Then, put the peg into the Lite Brite so that your child can see if s/he guessed right.

What color peg does your child think you have on each turn? Does your child choose the same color peg on every guess, or does s/he vary the colors s/he chooses?

Try it at Home

Heads or Tails?

Play a game of “heads or tails” with your child using any coin of your choice. Take turns flipping the coin and guessing which side will end up showing on top—either the “heads” side or the “tails” side.

When it is your child’s turn to guess, which side does s/he think will end up on top? Is there any pattern to your child’s guessing? Do his/her answers change depending on whether s/he sees the outcome?

Is your guess pattern different from that of your child?