Research at Bing 2003-2004
By Chia-wa Yeh, Research Coordinator and Teacher
Do children recognize “mice” as the correct plural form for “mouse” but still say “mouses”? Do Asian-American children prefer calmness over excitement more often than their European-American peers? Answers to these and other intriguing questions are the focus of recently completed and ongoing research studies conducted at Bing Nursery School in the past year.
As the laboratory school for the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, Bing serves as a research facility for studies in child development. The facility including its five research rooms in the atriums is specifically designed for child studies, many of which are presented in a game-like format.
Research conducted at Bing since its inception nearly 40 years ago has made significant contributions to our understanding of child development. Early work includes the renowned delayed gratification studies by Walter Mischel in the ’60s and Albert Bandura’s work on observational learning in the ’60s and ’70s. Mark Lepper conducted experiments on intrinsic motivation in the ’70s. More recently, John Flavell studied the theory of mind and Eve Clark and Ellen Markman examined young children’s language acquisition.
Following are descriptions of current and recent studies in childhood cognition and language and number comprehension conducted during the 2003-2004 academic year:
In one study in the field of cognition, children are given cards and asked to sort them, first by one criterion (e.g. color) and then by another (e.g. shape). After the card sort “game” they are given a standardized pictorial language task, to measure whether children with more complex understanding of language more easily follow new rules. This research study, led by professor Natasha Kirkham, seeks to discern the role of language competency in children’s ability to flexibly adapt to changing rules. Other factors to be examined are inhibitory control and metacognition.
A second study uses a guessing game to discover how effectively young children ask questions to solve problems. In the preliminary study, by doctoral student Michelle Chouinard, children are shown two objects and told that one of the objects will be hidden in a box. Children then ask questions to gather information about the object in the box. This research examines what type[s] of questions children generate for problem-solving. A follow-up study looks at whether children incorporate information received based on their own request more readily than information given to them unbidden.
A third study asks: At what age do children begin to understand that the human mind may form impressions and beliefs that differ from reality? For example, a sponge may be painted to look like a rock but it’s still a sponge. A dissertation by doctoral student Mikkel Hansen investigates the role discourse plays in distinguishing appearances and false beliefs from reality; he seeks to find out if the phrase “looks like” helps children make the distinction between reality and appearance and communicate such distinctions to others.
A related study, by professor Ellen Markman and doctoral student Max Abelev, on the stability and change of object identity, poses the question: If a lemon were painted orange and thus looked like an orange, would it produce lemonade or orange juice? This study examines whether three-year-olds and four-year-olds think (or believe) an animal or object maintains the same properties after its appearance changes.
In the first of two studies on how children generalize information, children are shown a book with pictures of a character looking for an object, a shirt, and then finding it and talking about it. When later shown an array of shirts and asked to choose which one the character in the story likes, it’s hypothesized that most children would choose a shirt similar to the one shown earlier. The study by Markman and doctoral student Rebecca Williamson seeks to see if children generalize information about other people’s preferences more narrowly than when learning words as labels.
In the second study of how children generalize, they are given a generically phrased piece of information about an object shown in a picture and subsequently asked whether other objects also possess the same property (e.g. “This is a fish. They stay under water to breathe.” “Does this dolphin also stay under water to breathe?”). This study, by Markman and doctoral student Andrei Cimpian, looks at how children take information learned in one context and apply it to other situations.
Another research project by Markman and Williamson on how precisely children imitate a model when learning to perform a new action hypothesizes that when the reason for an action is clear, children may deviate from the exact behavior they see and use their own means to complete the goal. However, if children do not know the reason for an action, it is thought they will try to imitate the modeled action as faithfully as possible.
Puppets are part of the act in a series of language studies by professor Michael Ramscar on the comprehension and production of plural forms of regular and irregular nouns (rat and rats vis-à-vis mouse and mice). For the comprehension portion of the study, children choose the “correct” puppet between two hand puppets, one using the over-regularized (mouses) and the other using the irregular form (mice). For the production task, children teach puppets a range of words, thus prompting the children to produce singular and plural forms of both regular and irregular nouns. A study by Ramscar and graduate student Eli Blatt looks at cross-cultural comparisons of English and Indonesian speakers in terms of their ability to discern similarities between actions. The two languages differ significantly as to inflection of verbs to indicate the state of an action. The English language verbs offer a variety of states of an action such as about to happen, is happening, just happened and has happened whereas the Indonesian language places more emphasis on the agent performing the action. The hypothesis of the study is that English-speaking children will perform better at discerning state of action than their Indonesian counterparts due to the nature of each language.
In a study by Ramscar and doctoral student Asha Smith to compare language learning strategies in children and adults, both children and adults are taught unfamiliar names using pictures in three categories: familiar objects with existing English names, novel objects without English names and objects with more ambiguous descriptions.
Another study by Markman and Cimpian seeks to determine how significant a role shape plays in learning object labels. Previous studies showed that children tend to extend new words to objects that share the same shape, particularly simple shapes. This tendency has been dubbed the “shape bias.” The new study tests the hypothesis that even young children understand that labels refer to objects of the same kind, regardless of shape similarity or perceptual similarity in general.
An honor’s thesis by senior Lynnea Mills explores young children’s understanding and use of emotional-psychological verbs such as “like” and “love” in relation to animate and inanimate objects, in particular looking at whether children tend to use “love” to describe animate rather than inanimate objects.
Two studies look at children’s number comprehension. One of them, by professor EClark and doctoral student Tanya Nikitina, focuses on very young children’s concepts of “one” versus “more than one” as well as their linguistic expression of singular versus plural forms. The researchers use specially designed books containing pictures of one animal and a multiple number of the same animal on opposite pages. The children are ages 23 months to 39 months.
The other study, by professor Susan Johnson and doctoral student Jennifer Wagner, looks at young children’s visual-spatial competency in approximating numbers. Children are shown two pictures with dots (side-by-side and at the same time) and asked if the pictures have the same number of dots or which picture is closer to a given number. The results will be compared with adults with Williams Syndrome, who have been shown to have very good language skills but poor visual-spatial abilities.
Following are more research studies focusing on feelings, first drawings, food choice and features on the newest robotic toys:
As part of a larger study by professor Jeanne Tsai’s culture and emotion lab, an honor’s thesis by senior Jennifer Louie compares differences in preferred emotional states between European-American and Chinese-American children. It investigates whether age, culture and gender differences in affect valuation are apparent in young children. In the study children are invited to draw faces that show different emotions. The researchers also present children with pictures showing activities that elicit calm versus excited emotional affect and ask the children about their own preferences.
Recent research by professor Daniel Schwartz and doctoral student Amanda Mathias looks at the development of children’s drawing, observing the progressions in their art including children’s self-portraits, family pictures and pictures of animals. The study hypothesizes that children gradually change to drawing in conventional ways with corresponding body parts, beginning with their drawings of animals, then family members and finally in drawings of the children themselves.
Improving children’s food choices is the goal of another study conducted by Markman and Johnson. Their food choice research project aims to help children understand the compositional nature of food, the food pyramid and food groups, and ultimately help them think about food preferences.
Robotic toy technology has become increasingly nuanced. What role might these robotic toys play in young children’s lives? Two studies from the School of Education explore this domain. One of them, by professor Deanne Perez-Granados and doctoral student Sandra Okita, looks at how young children interact with robotic toys with varying degrees of animacy and anthropomorphic features. Providing children with robotic toys with increasing level of contingency and response, the research project examines which objects the children view as animate or inanimate. The second study, by Schwartz and Okita, focuses on children’s and adults’ perceptions and interpretations of intelligence in robotic toys with varying levels of response and animal-like features.