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.


What types of geometric properties do toddlers understand?

As adults, we use geometric properties (like distance, direction, and angle) to recognize objects and navigate through the world. Research suggests that children may have an intuitive understanding of some types of geometric properties, even before they learn about them in school. In this study, we are investigating whether children understand the concepts of distance, direction, and angle in 2D and 3D objects.

In this study, 2-4 year-olds play a hiding and finding game. We show children a shape on a tabletop (for example, a triangle), and we show them where “Mr. Bear” likes to sit (for example, the far corner of the triangle). Then, we cover the tabletop and rotate it, so that the shape is facing in a different direction. When we uncover the tabletop again, we ask children to put Mr. Bear back in his favorite place. Children play this game several times, with different 2D or 3D shapes.

We want to find out whether children can accurately place Mr. Bear in the shape after it is rotated. To do this, they have to distinguish either the angles in the shape, or the relative position of the bear (near vs. far, to the right vs. left) compared to the parts of the shape.

This study will help us explain how children begin to understand geometrical properties, and at what ages they are able to use different cues to locate objects in their environment.

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

3D Structures

Build a three-dimensional structure, like a maze or a castle, using the blocks on the second floor of the Discovery Center. Have a friend watch you place an object in one part of your structure. Remove the object and walk over to the other side of the structure. Can your friend place the object in the same exact spot? What kind of cues could you use to find the same spot from a different angle?

One you have built a solid structure, try changing one geometrical property, like the angles of the walls. How does your structure look different? Try changing another property, like the distance between each block or the direction of the walls. Does your structure still look like the original?

Try it at Home

Different points of view

Look at common objects around your home, like a table, a dresser, a hairbrush, a dinner plate, or anything else that you see every day. What shapes are these objects? Are they made up of multiple shapes? Could you recognize this object based on the shape alone?

Now try looking at each object from different angles. Does the shape look different? Is it harder to recognize the object from unusual angles?