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.

Simplicity and Probability

Do children think about probability in the same ways that adults do?

Research has shown that adults prefer the simplest explanation with the fewest causes to explanations that are more probable, but more complex. This study asked: do children use the same reasoning?

In the first condition, children were read three storybooks. In each book, children were asked to choose between different explanations for events. The first story determined whether children prefer a simple or a more complex explanation. The second story determined whether children prefer a more probable or a less probable explanation. The third story pitted simple explanations against more probable, but more complex explanations. We predicted that children will reason the same way as adults and choose the simpler, but less probable explanation.

Through testing at the Discovery Center we found that children had trouble with our probability storybook. We introduced a new condition that aimed to explain probability more clearly. Children were shown red and green chips that lit up a toy. There were many more green chips than red chips. The researcher hid the chips, and then chose one to make the toy light up. When asked which chip caused the toy to light up, we predicted children would say ‘a green one’ because that is the more probable explanation.

This research helped us better understand whether using principles of simplicity and probability is one way children are able to form theories about the world, despite the fact that they may observe only small amounts of evidence.

Other Resources

This research was presented at the 7th International Conference of Development and Learning. You can download and read the paper: Ockham’s razor as inductive bias in preschooler’s causal explanations here.

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

Fossil Evidence: Following the Trail

Observe the fossilized footprints and have your child tell a story about what might have happened.

What kind of evidence do they use to guess what animal left behind the footprints?

How many animals were there, and what they were doing?

Children leave footprints behind too! Do they draw on prior knowledge from these experiences to tell their story?

Millipede Watching!

Scientists observe an animal's physical features and habitat to gather evidence about its behavior. Have your child observe the millipedes like a scientist.

Ask your child to explain why the millipedes might look and act the way they do.

Why might they have so many legs? What do they use the cucumbers for?

When explaining, does your child rely on evidence or imagination?

Try it at Home

Talking about Evidence

Children ask questions all of the time, so turn these moments into educational opportunities! The next time your child asks a question, respond with another question. Let your child guide the discussion, and listen to how your child reasons when learning about topics that interest him or her.