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.


Are children sensitive to basic geometric properties?

We know that adults are able to recognize subtle differences between shapes, like differences in the size of an angle or the length of its sides. This study asks two questions: “Do children share this ability?” and “Are some properties of shapes easier to recognize than others?”

In this study, we showed children (ages 3-5) some shapes on a computer screen. The shapes were made up of straight lines, which could have different angles or different length sides, or could be mirror images of one another. We showed children six shapes at a time and asked them to pick out the shape that was most different from the others.

We found that children could easily pick out a shape that had a different angle or different length sides compared to the other shapes in the set. However, children usually could not pick out a shape that was the mirror image of the others. This type of difference can be challenging even for adults to detect.

Our results show that children aren’t born with an automatic understanding of all geometric properties. They must learn how to interpret some aspects of different shapes through experience. This study will help us better understand how children begin to understand shapes and their properties, and how they use this knowledge to recognize objects in daily life.

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

Become an Architect!

Explore the "wood" blocks on the second floor of the Discovery Center. There are many different sizes and shapes of blocks. Try helping your child build a house or a tower using the different blocks.

Which blocks would be best to use for the roof? Which blocks could be used to create a tunnel?

Explore the different geometric properties of the blocks, and see which shapes work best for your design!

Try it at Home

Paper Shapes

Cut pieces of paper into a few different types of shapes. Mix the shapes up, and put them into a few groups. Ask your child to pick out the shape they think is the most different from the rest of each set.

Why do you think your child choose that shape as the one that “didn’t belong”? Which properties of the shapes were they focusing on?