Hello everyone and welcome to the CORAL blog! 

In this space, we will be sharing articles written by our team on current research in the field of language, social, and cognitive development. 

You will find summaries of our own research (with the finished publication linked), as well as short articles about exciting research from across the globe! We hope you will learn a little more about child development and how current topics relate to your child and your own life. 

Stay tuned for fun activities that you can do at home and within your communities, and for information on some virtual events you and your little ones will love! 

Unlocking the Secrets of Childhood Friendships: The Role of Secret Sharing in Children’s Friendship Predictions

Writen by: Shaneene Heupel

October 23rd, 2023

Friendships are like the threads that weave the fabric of our lives. They begin to take form quite early in our lives and play a huge role in shaping our experiences and defining who we are. In a past blog post titled "Like Peas in a Pod: What Do Preschoolers Understand About Friendship?" we dove into the fascinating world of how children perceive and understand friendships through proximity, similarities, and pro social interactions. In this blog post, we are going to take a deeper dive into the realm of childhood friendships and explore another way children seem to recognize friendships: secret sharing. 


As adults, we know that sharing secrets is an intimate act reserved for those we trust deeply. But when do children start recognizing the significance of secret sharing in building and maintaining friendships? A recent research paper titled "Secret to Friendship: Children Make Inferences About Friendship Based on Secret Sharing" delves into this question.


The study involved 452 children aged 3 to 12. Children were presented with a series of scenarios to gauge their understanding of secret sharing as a friendship indicator. 




Friendship recognition through secret sharing: Children aged 6 and above strongly associated secret sharing with friendship, recognizing that sharing secrets signified a closer bond than sharing material things.


Secrets vs. Facts: Older children, again aged 6 and above, demonstrated a clear preference for secret sharing over sharing factual information when it came to gauging friendship. 


Secrets vs. Team Membership: In the eyes of 6- to 8-year-olds, secret sharing was considered just as valid a cue for friendship as being part of the same team. Older children aged  9 to 12, rated secret sharing over team membership as a marker of friendship.


Understanding of the word "secret": The study also investigated whether children's understanding of secret sharing extended beyond the word "secret" itself. Results showed that children aged 6 and above associated the sharing of private information with friendship, indicating a deeper understanding of the concept.


Younger Children's Understanding: Even in the 3 to 5 age group, children demonstrated some understanding of the link between secret sharing and friendship. Although less developed compared to older children, they expected secrets to be selectively shared with friends.


The study described above demonstrates that, by the age of 6, children begin to recognize that sharing secrets symbolizes trust and friendship. These results suggests that children above the age of 6 understand the social significance of secrets and use them as cues to predict friendships.


Interested in the original research? 


Liberman, Z., & Shaw, A. (2018). Secret to friendship: Children make inferences about friendship based on secret sharing. Developmental psychology, 54(11), 2139.

To a Tee! Children are natural rule-followers and view conformity more positively

Writen by: Amer Hamad Al-Amry

May 8th, 2023

Conformity is compliance with the majority in behaving or forming opinions, and it’s the case in most humans, both adults and children. Conformity also extends to animals like monkeys, birds, fish, and even fruit flies! In fact, this tendency to conform is so strong that many studies report people would choose to agree with the majority even if it doesn’t match their personal beliefs. Scholars say this could be the case due to many reasons, such as a deep-rooted need to learn by following what others do, an effort to participate in our societies and socialize, or an uncertainty in our own judgements.  

In addition to that, children also favour following rules and instructions that are put in place. In fact, children follow instructions even if they don’t make sense at all! In one study, a team of researchers gathered a group of chimpanzees and (separately) a group of children, and showed each of them a demonstration on how to get a prize out of a box, but included extra steps, and made it so that these extra steps clearly did not help in getting the prize. However, while the chimps got the prize quickly and skipped all the extra steps, children painstakingly followed each and every one! This phenomenon in children is called over-imitation, since they tend to imitate what they are taught to the finest details, instead of emulation which is only making sure the final result is correct. The reasons children over-imitate are still unclear to scientists, and the fact that this only exists in humans is all the more puzzling. Some explanations proposed could be that over-imitation is hardwired in children’s brains, or that it is used as a form of bonding with one another and the person that is teaching the task at hand. Another explanation could be that as humans, we are highly ritualistic, and thus when copying extra steps children could be thinking that “this is how it’s done” and that it doesn’t necessarily have to serve a purpose to be deemed necessary.  

Another study sought to find out if children have any judgements attached to rule-followers. It used a cross-cultural sample, which means it used children from more than one culture, done to check if a study’s results are the same around the world or if it’s only limited to one country or culture. In this study, they showed children a video of an adult making a necklace out of beads, and again, the process had extra steps that weren’t necessary, like the necklace-maker pressing the beads to her forehead before adding them on the string. Then, they showed two follow-up videos, one in which a child does everything the adult does, and one in which another child makes the necklace correctly but skips all the extra steps. Then, they asked the children which one of the kids is smarter and which one is more well-behaved, and the children’s answers to both these questions was the kid that didn’t skip any steps. This means that not only do children over-imitate and conform to rules, but they also consciously judge rule-followers as smarter and better people!

Humans are social beings, and part of this sociality is following the rules of the majority, and this starts early on with children copying the actions of the majority and following every single extra step in a process they are learning even if it is less productive to do so. 

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

The Winner Takes it All: Preschoolers Focus Heavily on Outcome

Written by: Hailey Pawsey 

November 3rd, 2022

If two girls run a race, and one girl is winning but trips on a rock and falls, the other girl might get ahead and win. As adults, we easily can infer that the girl who fell may be a better runner – if she’s in a contest, we might even feel sorry for her, because if she ran the race again and there was no rock on the path, she’d probably win! But do young children understand that sometimes, the person who is better at something doesn’t always win? 

Findings suggests that a lot of preschoolers may struggle with understanding this concept! In one study, researchers created a running task just like the one mentioned above. They explained that the person who was winning the race tripped on a rock, and the other person won. They asked 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds who they thought was a better runner, and who they thought would win the race next time if there was no rock on the path. Three-year-olds really struggled – they believed that because the person who won the race won, they were the better runner and would win next time. Five-year-olds were successful, correctly inferring that even though the character who lost lost, they were actually faster and also better. What’s interesting is 4-year-olds correctly predicted the person who tripped would win next time, but they still said that the winner was a better runner! 

This focus on outcome is not only reserved for running races, but also building blocks. Another study asked preschoolers to consider different trials and judge from two scenarios which would be easier. In one trial, a girl had to build a tower made of a couple blocks, and another girl had to build a tower out of a bunch of blocks. Preschoolers were able to successfully examine differences in the outcomes (one tower was harder because it had many blocks, whereas the other was easier because it had few), and judge that the girl who built the harder tower was better! In another trial, a girl had a box filled with red blocks and a few blue, and she had to pull out six red blocks. Then there was another girl who had to pull out six red blocks from a box of mostly blue and only a few red. Interestingly, preschoolers couldn’t infer who was better at building blocks, likely because the two girls had the same outcome! This suggests that when preschoolers must integrate both process and outcome information, they really struggle to infer who is better. 

To summarize, current findings suggest that when inferring ability, preschoolers are really focused on outcome information. It may be the case that preschoolers just cannot inhibit information about who won. It’s also possible that preschoolers struggle to consider both process and outcome information, like in the building blocks tasks, and integrate this to determine who is better. 

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

If you’re happy and you know it: How do children infer emotions?

Written by: Jillian Rioux and Shaneene Heupel

June 20th, 2023

The capacity to recognize and understand emotions is one of the most important abilities that one learns in life. This skill matures in the early years and is practiced throughout our lives. Understanding emotions allows us to engage in successful social interactions – such as empathizing with others – but also helps us to regulate our own emotions and behaviors. In almost everything we do, we must attend to our own and others’ emotions. 

When does our understanding of emotions start? 

Research suggests that emotions are something we become attune to as early as the first few months of life! At three months, infants can differentiate smiling from frowning faces, and at five months, they can distinguish between happy and sad vocalizations. By the time they reach their toddler years, children begin to recognize and label basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. By four, children understand that emotions can be affected by external causes. For example, they understand that someone who gets their favorite dessert would be happy. As they age, children begin to conceptualize that someone’s emotions can depend on their internal desires and beliefs, and they understand that someone can show mixed emotions towards one situation. This conceptualization of emotions advances progressively throughout their development, with the mastery of some emotions (happy, sad) before others (surprise, fear).

How do children infer emotions? 

There are two leading theories that describe how children infer others’ emotions: by relying on memorized scripts and considering others’ mental states.

Scripts are knowledge structures which consists of sequences of concrete events that allow people to follow common social conventions. For example, you might have a script for a child’s birthday party that guides your behaviours: you show up to the party with a present, you play games, you sing to the birthday child, they blow out their candles, you eat cake, birthday child opens presents, and you get a party favour when you leave. With emotions, children come to learn various scripts and the emotions that accompany them. For example, your child might learn the script that people are happy when they open presents. So, the next time they see someone opening a present, they might infer that the person is happy. 

Researchers from Boston College have found that children as young as 3-years-old are able to use scripts to infer emotions. Given stories about concrete events, they can predict the valence of people’s emotions (e.g., feels good or feels bad), as well as the specific emotion labels (e.g., happy, sad, angry).

In almost every social situation, we make predictions about how someone will act, respond, and feel based on what we know about their mental states, such as their desires, beliefs, and goals. Let’s take our birthday party scenario as an example: Having talked to the birthday child at school, your child knows that the birthday child wants a Lego set. But after opening all their presents, the birthday child realizes that they did not get a Lego set. From understanding the birthday child’s desires, your child will likely infer that the birthday child will be sad. This is an example of taking someone’s mental state into consideration when predicting how they feel! 

Research shows that children’s ability to consider mental states when inferring emotions improves with age. Around age 2, children use people’s desires to infer simple emotions like happiness and sadness. But it is not until around age 7 that they can use people’s beliefs to infer complex emotions, like surprise and fear.                                                 

New research on how children infer emotions:


The two theories outlined above, inferring emotions through memorized scripts and mental states, are two prominent theories in the emotion literature. Over the past few years, Dr. Tiffany Doan, a recent PhD graduate from our DLL lab, has proposed an additional way children infer emotions: by using probability. 

What is probability?

Probability is the likelihood of an event happening. For example, winning a contest is a likely event if few people enter, but is an unlikely event if thousands of people enter. Related to our understanding of emotions, how someone feels about the same outcome can differ depending on the probability of it occurring. Someone might feel happier about winning the contest if their odds of winning were low compared to high.

How do children use probability to infer emotions? 

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. If asked to infer how a child feels about not being invited to a birthday party, your child’s inferences might differ depending on information about probability. If the birthday child was allowed to invite 20 classmates, your child might infer that the uninvited child would be very sad since the chances of getting an invite was high. However, if the birthday child was only allowed to invite two classmates, your child might infer that the uninvited child would be less sad, and perhaps even okay, since the chances of getting an invite was low.

A study conducted at the University of Waterloo investigated how children use probability to infer a particular emotion: happiness. In this study, researchers told children a story about a girl and a gumball machine that contained yummy and yucky gumballs. One group of children saw a machine that contained mostly yummy gumballs, and another group saw a machine that contained mostly yucky gumballs. Both groups were told that the girl wanted yummy gumballs, and watched her get two yummy and two yucky gumballs. Children were asked to rate how the girl felt using a happy face scale that ranged from extremely sad to extremely happy. Five- and 6-year-olds rated the girl as happier when the gumballs came from a mostly yucky gumball machine than when they came from a mostly yummy gumball machine. Rating the girl’s happiness differently despite her getting the same outcome suggests that children recognized that a better outcome was likely when the machine held mostly yummy gumballs and a worse outcome was likely when the machine held mostly yucky gumballs. Four-year-olds did not make the same inferences. 

An additional experiment was conducted to see if 4-year-olds can use probability to determine the quality of an outcome, rather than using it to predict someone’s happiness. When given just the outcome of two yummy and two yucky gumballs, 4-year-olds judged that the outcome was better when they came from a mostly yucky gumball machine than when they came from a mostly yummy gumball machine. This suggests that they can use probability to infer the quality of outcomes.

In sum, by the age of four, children can use probability to infer the quality of an outcome, and by five, they can use probability to infer people’s happiness. These findings show that children infer emotions by relying on more than just memorized scripts and people’s mental states.

To summarize, the ability to infer people’s emotions is an important skill to master, and young children may use an array of cues to do so. They can rely on scripts, which are based on their memorization of the events that elicit each emotion. They can consider people’s mental states, like their desires, beliefs, and goals. And they can also use information about probability to infer how people feel.

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Like Peas in a Pod: What Do Preschoolers Understand About Friendship? 

Written by: Jillian Rioux

May 26th, 2023

It’s no secret that we get by with a little help from our friends: friendships are vital to our everyday lives. We often lean on our friends in times when we need an extra hand, a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to listen to us unleash our inner thoughts. As adults, we have a pretty solid understanding of what friendship is, how friendships develop, and the importance they have in our lives. But when exactly does this conceptualization begin? When do children begin to develop friendships, and what do these early companionships look like? What do young children pay attention to when deciding who they want to be friends with?


It is likely that you can name off key qualities that you look for in a friend pretty easily. A study at the University of Kansas found six qualities that adults value in their friendships: enjoyment of time spent together, equal give-and-take of support and understanding, voluntary helping, similarities in attitudes and activities, intimate self-disclosure, and agency. But what about children? Do they attribute the same value to these qualities? Research shows that children actually view similar factors as being central to friendship! During the preschool years, the three central factors that children consider in their understanding of friendship are proximity, similarity, and prosocial interactions. 


Imagine you live in an apartment complex. You have neighbours in the units above and below you, and in the unit next to you. Who do you think you are most likely to become friends with: the woman in the unit above you, the student in the unit below you, or the couple next door? If you said the couple next door, then you answered the question based on proximity.

Proximity involves spending time in a close physical range to another individual. Sensitivity to proximity as a factor in friendships develops pretty early, as studies have shown that even 3-5-years-olds expect that the amount of time spent with another person is related to their friendship status, with more time spent together indicating better friendship. Researchers at the University of California and University of Chicago presented scenarios involving three characters to children, and asked them which two characters were more likely to be friends. Children in this study assumed the characters who spent a lot of time together, liked to play together, and who sat next to each other in class, were more likely to be friends. 

Not only do children consider proximity as a factor in developing friendships, but in their own friendships, children also consider the quality of the time spent in proximity with someone. A study at the University of Illinois investigated this by collecting and analyzing audio recordings of 3-9-year-olds during several play sessions. They found that the children who engaged in clear communication (e.g., expressing which toy they wanted to use) and successfully managed conflicts during their interactions (e.g., settling disagreements) were the ones who became friends. In sum, preschool-aged children understand that the amount of time two people spend together is a cue to their friendship status and, in their own relationships, they are also affected by the quality of the time spent with others. 




Another key factor in early friendship understanding is similarity. Research shows that from a very young age, we selectively choose social partners who are similar to us. For example, 1-year-olds prefer puppets who have the same food preferences as them, and 3-year-olds prefer individuals who share similar preferences and look like them. By the time children are of preschool-age, they begin to make inferences about others’ friendships based on their similarities. For example, they assume that two people of the same gender or race are likely to be friends, and they begin to view similarities in skills or experiences as cues to friendship, such as a passion for playing the piano or a similar travel experience to the zoo!


However, preschoolers also recognize that there are limits to the types of similarities that signal friendship. For example, children understand that arbitrary similarities, like sharing a birthday, are not relevant cues to friendship.


Prosocial interactions

We know that children see factors like proximity and similarity as important factors for developing friendships and that the quality of interactions matters as well. What kinds of behaviours do children expect friends to engage in? This brings us to the third key factor in children’s understanding of friendships: prosocial interactions. 

Prosocial interactions include a wide range of positive behaviours, such as helping, sharing, and engaging in intimate self-disclosure. Many studies have found that preschoolers will share, help, support, and comfort their friends, and that they expect their friends to do the same for them. In brief, children recognize that support is a crucial component of a friendship. Not only do they recognize the importance of prosocial behaviour in their own friendships, but children also recognize this factor in others’ friendships as well. One study from Harvard University found that 4-year-olds infer friendship between individuals who help each other complete a task. Another study from the University of California and University of Chicago found that 3-6-year-olds infer friendship between two individuals if one provides help to the other. In short, preschoolers expect people to be friends with those who have helped them!


To summarize, our understanding of friendship evolves at a young age. Starting during the preschool years, we actively seek individuals who are near us, who help and share with us, and who share similar skills and experiences with us to be friends with, and our use of these factors become deeper and more complex as we age. Do you think these factors have played a role in your little one’s friendships?

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Development, 90.(3), 719-717.

Development, 30.(2), 331-342. 

I choose you! How do children decide who to ask for help?

Written by: Jessica Huang

April 7th, 2022

Children encounter many people in their day-to-day lives, and they’re absorbing a lot of information rapidly. Sometimes, children can receive conflicting information from others, so how do children decide whose information to trust? 

This is what Kathleen Corriveau and Katherine Kinzler explored in their study involving 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. They asked what children prioritize when two potential cues to people’s knowledge conflict.

The children were presented with two female English-Spanish bilingual speakers. To start, the children heard each speaker tell a little story, which familiarized them to each speaker’s accent. One spoke in English with a native English accent and the other spoke in English with a Spanish accent. After this, children were introduced to several novel toys. They were asked which girl they would want to find out the name of the toys from. This served as the children’s baseline preference – before they learned more about the speakers’ knowledge, did children prefer the native-accented speaker or the non-native accented speaker? Previous research has shown that children typically prefer native-accented speakers. Next, children learned more about each speaker’s competence in naming objects . Children were presented with several familiar objects and watched each speaker label them. One speaker always labelled the items correctly and the other speaker always labelled the items incorrectly. For example, the accurate speaker would label a spoon with the correct label, spoon, but the inaccurate speaker would label it as a duck. Children were then shown additional novel toys and had to indicate which girl they wanted to ask for help to find out their names. 

Before children had learned anything about how good the speakers were at naming objects, children across all three age groups were most likely to endorse the native-accented speaker. In other words, they were more likely to indicate they wanted to ask the native-accented girl to find out the name of the novel toy. Children’s preferences changed once they learned more about how accurate the speakers were at naming. When the native-accented speaker correctly labelled the familiar items, children continued to prefer the native speaker. However, when the native-accented speaker incorrectly labelled the familiar items, the 4-and 5-year-olds showed a clear shift in preference, endorsing the non-native accented speaker. 3-year-olds didn’t show a clear preference for either speaker in this case, which indicates that they aren’t prioritizing accuracy over accent in the way that older children are. Children were also asked why they thought the speakers were wrong. When the native-accented speaker was wrong, most children said it was because “she was just pretending.” When the non-native accented speaker had been incorrect, most children said it was because “she didn’t know” the names of the familiar items.   

This study is incredibly interesting because it demonstrates the complex ways in which children weigh conflicting cues to choose who might give them better information in a particular situation. Older children don’t show a stable preference for native-accented speakers. Instead, their judgement is flexible and depends on other cues about people’s knowledge. This study also demonstrates how children attribute the same kind of error to different causes, depending on who the speaker is!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below: 

Can you guess where I’m from? Children use accents to figure out where people live 

Written by: Jessica Huang

March 14th, 2022

For adults, a person’s accent is a strong cue to where they are from. For example, you will probably assume someone with a Japanese accent is from Japan and someone with Mexican accent is from Mexico. Do children understand that there is a link between accent and background? It turns out they do! Even if children’s inferences are not as sophisticated as adults’, studies have shown that, when asked, children will say that someone with the same accent as them lives in the same area as them (and that someone with a different accent lives in a different place than they do). But these early studies involved children comparing their own accents to someone else’s. Do children also understand more generally that people with the same accent tend to share the same background and that people with different accents have different backgrounds? 

To explore these questions, Weatherhead and colleagues conducted a study with 3- to 5-year-olds. In experiment 1, children were introduced to two speakers with the same unfamiliar accent. Children were assigned to one of two conditions, either the background or the preference condition. In the background condition, children were told where one of the speakers lived (e.g., she lives in a snowy place). They were then asked where the other speaker lived. Children were presented with three options: the same snowy place and two other locations. In the preference condition, children were told about the favourite colour of the first speaker instead. Then, children were asked about the other speaker’s favourite colour. They were presented with three options, with one of the options being the same colour. 

If children in the background condition understand that two people with the same unfamiliar accent are likely to come from the same place, they should choose the same location for the second speaker at an above-chance rate (33%). However, since people who come from the same place do not necessarily have the same colour preferences, children should not choose the same colour for the second speaker at an above-chance rate. As predicted, results showed that children in the background condition chose the same location at a higher rate than chance, indicating that they inferred the two speakers came from the same place. Children in the preference condition chose the same colour at a rate below chance, indicating that they did not expect two speakers with the same accent to necessarily share the same preferences.   

In a follow-up study, 4- to 5-year-old children heard two speakers with two different unfamiliar accents. As in the first study, they were told where one speaker lived, then asked where the second speaker lived. In this condition, children were less likely to choose the same place. This indicates that children don’t make the generalization that anyone with an unfamiliar accent comes from the same place. They can tell accents apart, and seem to be sensitive to the fact that speakers with different accents (even when both accents are unfamiliar) are likely to come from different places.  

Overall, the two studies indicate that children can make sophisticated inferences based on someone’s accent. Children believe that people with the same accents share some of the same experiences – like where they are from -- but they do not generalize this to assume that they share everything. They also assume that people with different accents come from different places. So even though young children don’t know much about specific countries yet, they still have basic assumptions that how someone talks can tell you something about where they are from!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

3 cues that children use to help guide their word learning

Written by: Ashley Avarino and Shaneene Heupel

February 14th. 2022

Every day, children are faced with an incredible amount of new information in their environment: new smells, new sights, new people and new objects. Not only do they need to take in all this new information, but they also need to learn how to communicate about it. One example of this is when children are faced with learning the names for things in their environment. This may seem like a straightforward task, especially since infants make it look easy and effortless! But, it’s actually a huge challenge!  

The Gavagai Problem

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes by diving into The Gavagai Problem. The Gavagai Problem was put forward by Willard Van Orman Quine, a popular 20th Century Philosopher. Quine’s thought experiment demonstrates one of the main challenges children are faced with during word learning: in any given situation in which they might hear a new word, there are endless possibilities for what that word could mean!

Imagine that you’re standing next to someone who speaks a different language from you. All of a sudden, a rabbit runs by and they yell “Gavagai!”. How would you know what they were referring to? You may think that it’s obvious that they are referring to the rabbit, but they really could be referring to just about anything! Gavagai could refer to the speed of the rabbit, the colour of the rabbit, it could be a phrase for being startled, or perhaps they didn’t even see the rabbit run by and they’re referring to something else entirely. 

The Gavagai Problem demonstrates that in any given learning situation, there are many possibilities for what a word could mean. This gives us a bit of a sense of what children are faced with when learning the words of their native language.

The Gavagai Problem: A Child’s Perspective

Let’s frame The Gavagai Problem from a child’s perspective: Imagine that your little one just got a new toy hammer and that you’ve placed it in their toy basket. That evening you’re sitting in the living room, and you say “Do you like your hammer?”. Although to you it might seem obvious that you are referring to their new toy, to your little one, who doesn’t yet know what a hammer is, you really could be referring to just about anything! So, how does your child figure out that you are referring to the hammer?

In this blog we walk you through 3 strategies that young children use to help them solve the Gavagai Problem and figure out what words refer to in their immediate environment. 


Strategy 1: Joint Attention

You might notice that as you are talking to your little one about things around them, they are pretty good at attending to the things that you’re attending to. The ability to attend to someone else’s focus of attention is called joint attention, and it can help learners solve The Gavagai Problem. In our Hammer example above, your child might check to see where you’re looking when you use the word, “Hammer”. If they see that you are looking at the toy box, they will assume that you are probably talking about something in there!

Strategy 2: Mutual Exclusivity

Another strategy that your child might use to help them figure out which toy you’re labelling is called mutual exclusivity. Mutual exclusivity is a bias to assume that each kind of object only has one label. So, if your child already has a name for the other toys in their toy box, they can make the assumption that when you say “Hammer!” you’re referring to the new toy: the object they do not yet have a name for! 

Strategy 3: Whole-Object Bias

But wait! Even though they’ve narrowed down that you’re talking about the hammer, there are still so many things about the hammer that you could be referring to. How does your child know that you’re not talking about the shape, the colour, the texture, or a specific part of the hammer? How do they infer that “hammer” refers to the object as a whole? The answer to this is another bias: the whole object bias. The whole object bias is an assumption that labels refer to objects as a whole, rather than their parts. This is part of the reason why so many of a child’s earliest words are object words.

Working Together to Solve The Gavagai Problem

We know that children use these three strategies to help guide their word learning In fact, children are often using these strategies simultaneously – for example, they may use your eye gaze to isolate the direction of what you’re talking about and then pick out the most likely whole object. But these strategies also require different levels of expertise. For example, in order to use the mutual exclusivity bias, your child needs to already know some words. Learning language is a huge task – but learners have many strategies like these in their toolbox to help them do it!  

Children are curious to learn about people who are different from them!

Written by: Claudia Sehl

January 15th, 2022

Imagine there are two new kids at your little one’s school: one is from a local town, and the other is from a distant country. Based on this information alone, who do you think the students would rather play with on the first day? 

You might predict that children would rather play with the kid from the local town. Some research has shown that from the age of five, children prefer to be friends with people who are similar to them. They chose to be friends with people who speak their language, share their accents, are the same gender, are the same race, or like the same things (e.g., Fawcett & Markson, 2010; Kinzler et al., 2007). 

Results from this research might tell us that children typically prefer people who are similar to them. However, children’s preferences might change when making a different choice. For instance, who do you think the students would be more interested to learn about during show-and-tell? You might guess that students would choose the child from far away because they probably have more new and interesting experiences to share than the child from nearby. 

In our research at the CORAL lab, we explored this question by asking children who they like more andwho they want to learn more about (Sehl et al., 2021). In our first experiment, we showed 4-6-year-olds two characters. One character lived in Canada and had characteristics typical of people living here. For example, they lived in a place with a flat grassy landscape, North American houses, and where people play soccer. The other character lived far away and had characteristics atypical of Canadians. For example, they lived in a place with a rugged mountainous landscape, huts, and where people play hurling. We asked children who they liked better and who they wanted to learn more about. Children chose the foreign character more often when choosing who they wanted to learn about than who they liked better. 

But what if children just wanted to learn about the far away character because they have interesting, unfamiliar traits? We conducted another experiment to find out whether children’s preferences are due to the foreign character’s distance or to their unfamiliar traits. We showed 4-6-year-olds the same characters, but this time, children were only told whether characters lived nearby or far away. We found that by age six, children preferred foreign characters more when choosing who they wanted to learn more about than who they liked. 

This research tells us a lot about children’s social preferences: children may like people who are similar to them, but may be more curious to learn about people who are different than them. This also provides us insights that children’s social preferences change when making different choices. 

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

What can uhhhs and ummms tell us?

Written by: Shaneene Heupel

When we talk, we don’t always speak perfectly fluently. We make all sorts of corrections or hesitations, like saying “ummm” and “uhhh”. You might think that these sorts of things are unnecessary and you might even think that they make it harder for a listener to understand what someone is saying. But, research has shown that these types of hesitations (also called disfluencies) are actually kind of important and can provide a lot of information to people listening! In one of our labs, the Lab for Infant Development and Language, run by Dr. Katherine White, we have been exploring how children interpret these types of disfluencies in speech.

Umms and uhhs can provide two main kinds of information for listeners. The first is that they can tell listeners how confident someone is in what they are saying. For example, if you ask someone whether the next step in a recipe is to beat the eggs or to add the milk, and they say, “Uhh, I think the next step is to beat the eggs…”, you might not be very sure that that is indeed the next step! After all, they don’t sound very confident about it.  In one study, we asked whether children use speech fluency to help them decide who has better information. In this study, children were presented with two puppets. First, the puppets each named three familiar objects. One of the speakers talked about the objects fluently, while the other talked about them disfluently (e.g., “This is a clock” vs. “This is a uhhh clock”). After labelling familiar objects, each puppet pointed at and labelled one of two unfamiliar objects, with the same label (e.g., “This is a blicket” vs. “This is a uhhh blicket”).

Children were asked which of the two objects was labelled correctly. Children’s responses showed they “trusted” the fluent speaker’s label for the new object more than they “trusted” the disfluent speaker’s label. In past blog posts, we’ve talked about how children choose to learn information from someone who has been more accurate in the past, or who seems more likely to know the information (like a child, when the topic is toys!) But these results show that children might also decide whether to learn from a person in a particular situation because of how sure they sound.

Disfluencies can occur when a speaker is unsure, but they can also arise for other reasons. For example, speech disfluencies can occur when a speaker changes topics, probably because it can take a little time to get your brain ready to talk about the new topic. For example, imagine you are talking to your friend about something that happened during a TV show, then they ask you how to make your famous black bean burgers. Your friend’s recipe question might have caught you off guard because you weren’t thinking about it! This might cause you to pause as you switch topics, but not because you don’t know your recipe! Research has shown that listeners seem to be sensitive to this aspect of disfluencies, too! In another study we did, we presented children with two pictures, like a ball and a dog. We then had a recording of someone talking about one of the pictures (“Look at the ball! I see a ball!”). When they heard this, children looked at the ball. But if they then heard the person say, “Look at the uhhh….”, children started looking at the dog, even before they heard the word! This is because they assumed that if the person was hesitating, they were about to switch topics and talk about the other picture.

All of this is to say that hesitations like disfluencies (umms and uhhs) are just a normal part of speech! These types of speech patterns are actually giving listeners important information, and even young kids know how to interpret them!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

How do children determine who is the expert?

Written by: Venus Ho

In one of our previous blog posts “How do children choose who to learn from?”, we talked about how children use various cues, such as past accuracy, confidence, and expertise, to determine whether a person is a reliable source of information! From a very young age, children are aware that some people are misinformed, so they are constantly evaluating whether people are knowledgeable and trustworthy. In today’s blog post, we will be continuing our discussion on how children are careful learners by sharing more research on how children determine who has expertise!


Studies have shown that children, as young as 3 years old, use a person’s title to determine whether they have expertise in a specific area. Titles, such as “lawyer”, “doctor”, and “car mechanic”, act as a cue to the training and knowledge a person has. For instance, 3-year-olds are able to point out that “car mechanics” are more likely to know about how to fix cars, while “doctors” are more likely to know how to help sick people. As they grow older, children’s ability to do this becomes more advanced and they are able to link titles to broader areas of knowledge. For instance, 4 to 5-year-olds are able to point out that “car mechanics” are more likely to know about how physical objects work in general (e.g., how a yo-yo works), while “doctors” are more likely to know about biological topics in general (e.g., why plants need sunlight to grow).


Additionally, ownership is another cue to expertise that children use. In one study, 4- and 5-year-olds judged that owners of an object were more likely to have knowledge about that object than someone who liked the object but did not own it. This makes sense since owners typically become very knowledgeable of their property through frequent use! 5-year-olds also judged that a person who has deeper knowledge about an object (e.g., knowing how to fix it) was more likely to be the owner of that object than a person who only has superficial knowledge about the object (e.g., knowing what colour the object is). Thus, ownership may also be a strategy that children use to determine who has more expertise and knowledge about objects they want to learn about.

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Imaginary Companions in Childhood and their Psychological Importance 

Written by: Julianna Lu

Children are known for having remarkable imaginations. Beginning from ages two or three, many children engage with imaginary companions; fictitious people, animals or objects that children create. Talking and playing with an imaginary friend is a normal psychological phenomenon. Interestingly, these imaginary relationships play a role in human thought and can be constructive in children’s development of social relationships and other areas of development such as cognition. For example, playing with an imaginary companion provides children with opportunities to practice skills that are useful for later social interactions and emotional regulation. Indeed, imaginary relationships often mirror real-life relationships in that they are associated with emotion, and the imaginary bonds created can be endured over a period of time.


Therefore, there are many benefits to playing with an imaginary friend. Here are three different examples of how having an imaginary friend contributes to child development. 

Research shows that engaging with an imaginary friend may support children’s language development. In

2009, Trionfi and Reese compared the vocabulary and narrative skills between children with or without imaginary companions. Five-year-old children and their mothers were interviewed about the child’s imaginary companion. Children were assessed on their level of engagement with an imaginary companion, on their receptive and expressive vocabulary skills, story comprehension, and ability to retell a story. Findings suggest that children with an imaginary companion told richer narratives when asked to retell a story. However, there was no significant difference in vocabulary skills among children with or without an imaginary companion. Nevertheless, children’s engagement with an imaginary companion contributes to their development of narrative skills, which can, later, bolster children’s reading skills. 


Theory of Mind (ToM) is an important social-cognitive ability that develops throughout early to middle childhood. It is defined as the ability to consider one’s own and other people’s mental states. For example, understanding that other people may have different desires and will act accordingly to achieve what they want is one aspect of ToM. Ultimately, ToM is a foundational element for social interaction. 

In a study conducted by Giménez-Dasía, and colleagues in 2014, children with imaginary companions showed better ToM when compared to children without imaginary companions. The creation of an imaginary friend fosters the understanding of mental states. Similar to pretend play, engaging with an imaginary friend requires children to create mental representations. For example, they may create characters who possess different beliefs, desires, and goals. Therefore, playing with an imaginary companion is a great way to foster perspective-taking.


In the same study mentioned above, Giménez-Dasía and colleagues found that children who had an imaginary companion were more advanced in their emotional understanding. To measure children’s emotional understanding, participants were evaluated on their ability to recognize basic emotions, their understanding of the impact of external variations on emotions, their ability to understand the impact of beliefs on emotion, and a variety of other features related to emotional understanding. Participants were told a story about a character and after hearing the story, they were asked to label the emotion that best described how the character was feeling. For example, to assess their understanding of the impact of external variations on emotions, they were told the following story: “This girl is being chased by a monster. How is she feeling? Happy, just alright, or scared?” Overall, the findings suggest that children with an imaginary companion had a higher level of emotional understanding than children without an imaginary companion. During these imaginary interactions, children are constructing a reciprocal conversation. They are learning to take different perspectives which allows them to better understand the emotions of another person. 


To summarize, having an imaginary companion is a normal and healthy component of play during childhood. Although it was historically viewed as a cause for concern, research on imaginary companions has demonstrated its beneficial role in children’s language development, theory of mind, emotional understanding, and many other areas of child development. But not having an imaginary friend is just fine too – some children enjoy this kind of play and other children find different types of play more fun and rewarding! Nearly every type of childhood play offers specific benefits to cognitive, physical, and language development. 

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

3 Strategies Your Baby Uses to Solve the Speech Segmentation Problem

Written by: Ashley Avarino

What is the Speech Segmentation Problem?

When you listen to people talk, you may have the impression that each word they speak is separated by a brief silence. But, in fact, natural speech is a continuous flow of sounds, with almost no pauses occurring between words! When we listen to our own language, our brain “inserts” pauses between the words that we pull out of the speech stream. But inserting pauses is not something that our brain does automatically. This becomes more obvious if you listen to an unfamiliar language – it’s almost impossible to tell how many words are being spoken, or where they start and end. So, we need to learn word boundaries before our brain can insert pauses where they belong! The fact that speech is continuous poses a problem for our smallest language learners: How do infants begin to find the boundaries between words? In this article we discuss three strategies that your infant uses to pull words out of the speech stream!


Strategy 1: Tracking What Sounds “Go Together”


Infants can track sound patterns to help them find where a word starts and ends. Sounds that “go together” most often across sentences also tend to be the sounds that create words. For example, the word babyincludes the sounds ba and by – each time the word baby is heard, the sounds ba precede the sounds by. After listening to many sentences in the speech around them that have these sounds, infants can track that they “go together” and pull them out of the speech stream as the word baby.


Strategy 2: The Way Words Sound


Infants also use prosody to find word boundaries. Prosody is the intonation and rhythm of a language, and one aspect of prosody is the patterning of syllable stress in words. In some languages (e.g., English) the first syllable of a word is usually emphasized, while in other languages (e.g., French) the second syllable is more likely to be emphasized. Take a look at the sound waveforms below. Both are representations of the same word being spoken, Pizza. But, the first syllable is emphasized in the waveform on the left, while the second syllable is emphasized in the waveform on the right!

How do infants use syllable stress to segment words? Let’s say you are an English-learning infant. If you heard a syllable that was emphasized, it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that it’s the beginning of a word. The opposite would be true if you were a French-speaking infant: you would assume the emphasized syllable is the end of a word!


Strategy 3: Anchoring to Familiar Words


A third strategy that your infant uses to segment words from the speech stream is anchoring to familiar words. Let’s say that your infant’s name is Ashley, and that Ashley knows their name. When Ashley hears the sentence “Look, Ashley’s bike!”, they can infer two things: first, that the string of sounds “look” must belong to a word that came before their name, and second, that the string of sounds “bike” must belong to a word that came after their name. How do they infer this? They infer this by using the beginning and end sounds of their name as markers for the word boundaries; they know that Ashley is a word, so whatever comes before it should belong to a different word, and whatever comes after it should belong to yet another word.


Which Came First: The Chicken or the Egg?

Although these strategies give us some insight into how infants segment speech, we are left with another question: Which one comes first? It would seem as though infants would need a bit of knowledge about words to use some of these strategies. For example, to use familiar words as anchors they would need to already know some words. And, to use the stress pattern of words, they would need to know many wordsthat use this stress pattern. Developmental Psychologists think that infants are first learning some words in isolation (e.g., their name, “mama”, “dada”, “bottle”, “teddy”, etc.) and then use these words to build up to these other strategies. Additionally, tracking what sounds “go together” may not necessarily require any prior knowledge of words – without knowing any words in a speech stream, infants can pick out the sounds that most likely compose a single word based on how often those sounds occur together! If you pause and think about it, that’s pretty amazing.

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

psychology, 39(3-4), 159-207.

infants. Developmental psychology, 39(4), 706.

stream segmentation. Psychological science, 16(4), 298-304.

Perceiving is believing? Children learn from confident people even when it conflicts with their own perceptions

Written by: Jessica Huang 

We learn from other people all the time, so how do we decide whether someone is a credible source of information? Well, we often take someone’s confidence as a sign that they know what they’re talking about. 

Vikram Jaswal and Lauren Malone conducted a study that explored whether young children use cues to a speaker’s confidence to decide whether someone is credible. Someone’s level of confidence can be expressed through both verbal cues (like saying “I know” vs. “I think”) or non-verbal cues, such as furrowed brows and a tilted head. Jaswal and Malone wanted to know whether children relied on a speaker’s confidence to decide whether to learn something that conflicted with the child’s own perceptions.

To do this, the researchers created hybrid objects, which were computer generated using various common objects. For example, there was a key-like item, which had features of both a spoon and a key, but ultimately looked more like a key.

Using the key-like item as an example, 3-year-old children were first shown a picture of a car and a typical key. Using the picture of the typical key, the experimenter demonstrated that the key was used to start the car. Children were also shown a picture of a bowl and a typical spoon. Again, the experimenter used the picture of the typical spoon to demonstrate that it was used for eating cereal out of the bowl. Finally, children were shown the key-like object. The experimenter then labelled it as a spoon, which was inconsistent with its appearance. Some children heard the experimenter label the item confidently by saying, “This is a spoon.” Other children heard the experimenter sound uncertain by saying “I think this a spoon” while furrowing their brows. Children were then asked whether the key-like item was used to start the car or to eat cereal out of the bowl.      

When children in the confident condition heard that the key-like item was a spoon, they were likely to agree with the experimenter and indicate that it would be used to eat cereal from the bowl. However, when the experimenter had been uncertain, children were more likely to indicate that the key-like item would be used to start the car. In other words, they were more skeptical of the label that was provided by the uncertain experimenter, and thus, were more likely to ignore it and make their decision about the object’s function based on its appearance.  

Children learn a great deal about the world from what other people tell them. However, this study shows that they don’t take everything people tell them at face value, especially when it conflicts with what they can perceive directly themselves! Although children are willing to rely on a confident adult’s information even when it conflicts with an object’s appearance, they are not willing to rely on a less confident adult in this situation. Studies like this show us that children are balancing many different factors during learning, such as a speaker’s confidence and their own guesses about what something is!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:


How do children choose who to learn from? 

By: Shaneene Heupel 

Children are constantly faced with new information – new people, new words, new objects – and therefore are constantly learning. In fact, their main job in the first few years of life is to learn. But how do they learn? Some information is learned through their own observations and experiences, however, much of it is learned from other people. But people have varying levels of knowledge, they make mistakes, they may be misinformed, or they might just be deceptive. So, how does a child determine when and if a speaker is sharing information that is useful to them? Research suggests that children use certain cues to help them determine whether a speaker is likely to have good information. One such cue is a speaker’s past behaviour – how accurate they have been in the past, how confident they appear, and whether they have demonstrated expertise in a given topic. 

In the past, this person has been correct about the information they have told me – should I trust them when learning new information? For adults, the answer is yes. But do children come to the same conclusion? Yes, they do! In fact, lots of research shows that children are very good at keeping track of someone’s past accuracy and use that information to decide whether they can trust this person when learning about something new. One typical way to test this is by presenting children with two possible people to learn from. One person is always accurate, labeling objects like a cat, a book, and a banana correctly. Another person is always inaccurate, giving these objects the wrong labels (perhaps saying cow, door, and flower). Children are then presented with an object they have never seen before and are asked which of the speakers they want to learn the name of the new object from. Children are much more likely to choose the previously accurate individual. In fact, even if both people were mostly accurate, children can keep track of how often each person was accurate, and they prefer to learn from the one who was accurate more often.

This speaker doesn’t seem to know much – should I choose to learn new information from them? For adults, the answer to this is “probably not”. It turns out that children feel the same way! Even if two people both provide the right answers about familiar things, if one person always says things like “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “I think” before they answer, then children will prefer to learn new information from the other person. 

I want to learn about cars. This person has shown me that they know a lot about cars. Should I ask them to teach me new things about cars? For adults the answer is clear – of course we should ask the car expert for car information. Do children choose who to learn from someone based on their expertise in a given topic? Yes, they do! For example, when children need to learn about animals, they are more likely to ask an animal expert over an artifact expert. So even though both people are experts in something, children consider the domain of expertise when deciding what to learn from them. 

So, children are careful learners! They weigh a number of factors to determine who might have the best information for them. The next time your child is learning something, see if you can notice the ways in which they are carefully evaluating what they are told!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Moral development: Even your kids can do it!

Written by: Claudia Sehl

The ability to understand the difference between right and wrong is known as morality. Morality is what guides us to make ethical choices and to identify when others are acting badly. Although it may seem like a high-level ability, morality surprisingly emerges early on in development.

An American psychologist named Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg raised one of the first theories of moral development in 1958. He believed that people progress through three levels of moral reasoning (preconventional, conventional, and postconventional), with each level consisting of two stages. The first two stages, known as the preconventional stages, correspond to moral development in childhood. At these stages, children try to be well-behaved to avoid punishment. For instance, preschoolers learn not to hit other children because they do not want to get in trouble. Preschoolers are also well-behaved to receive rewards for moral behavior, such as praise or treats for sharing with others. So, from early on in development, children do not automatically know what the right thing is to do. Instead, they rely on feedback from parents and caretakers to guide their behavior. 

By late-childhood and adolescence, people start to follow moral conventions, not just for the sake of being rewarded and avoiding punishment. During these conventional stages, adolescents try to live up to societal expectations by being a ‘good’ person. In doing so, they begin to recognize that their behaviour will have social benefits, like friendships. For example, teens realize that it is good to be kind to others, as others will reciprocate this same kindness to them. Additionally, teens start to understand the importance of following fixed rules and laws. 

Finally, in the postconventional stages, adults recognize their own personal moral values. They also realize that there may be exceptions to legal rules if moral rights are violated. For instance, stealing necessities such as food and medicine may be considered acceptable in desperate situations. Furthermore, adults at this stage can engage in abstract moral reasoning about ethical principles, such as preserving human life and behaving with integrity. According to Kohlberg, most adults remained at the conventional stages and few adults moved onto the post-conventional stages of moral reasoning.


Kohlberg’s work is considered foundational to our understanding of moral development, but some recent research suggests that some stages may occur much earlier than he originally thought. In one experiment, 2.5-year-olds offered their own blanket to a shivering experimenter. Altruistic behaviors such as these suggest that young children are empathetic to others’ distress[1]. In another study, experimenters asked young children if it would be okay to break rules, such as hurting or stealing from others. Four-year-olds knew that it is wrong to do these things, even if parents and teachers said it was okay[2]. Findings like these suggest that our understanding of morality may begin earlier in development than what was previously thought! 


Next time you are playing with your child, reflect on these stages of moral development. Can you observe which stage they might be at? What early signs of moral development do you notice?

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

[1] Svetlova, M., Nichols, S. R., & Brownell, C. A. (2010). Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child development, 81(6), 1814-1827.

[2] Smetana, J. G., Rote, W. M., Jambon, M., TasopoulosChan, M., Villalobos, M., & Comer, J. (2012). Developmental changes and individual differences in young children’s moral judgments. Child development, 83(2), 683-696.

Is Language Really Arbitrary?

Written by: Erin Kim


Language has many properties that make it special. One of these is something called arbitrariness, which is the fact that there is no intrinsic relationship between a word’s form (the way it sounds) and its meaning. For example, there is nothing about the sound of the word “dog” that indicates it is referring to a furry, four-legged, canine animal. This is the reason why the same animal can be called something completely different (“chien”) in French!  With the exception of a few words that sound like what they refer to  (e.g. “meow”, “buzz”, “boom”), the words of a language are typically thought to be arbitrary in this way. 


But not so fast! Is everything else really arbitrary? Try this famous experiment out for yourself! 

One of the two figures below is a “bouba”, and the other is a “kiki”. Which is which?

If you guessed that shape A is the “bouba” and shape B is the “kiki”, your intuitions are in line with about 95% of people who also participated in this experiment. But, if language is arbitrary, how is it that there is such consistency in how people make associations between these words and figures? The reason behind this reliable pattern is thought to lie in how visual features of the figures align with features of how sounds are produced. For instance, the sharp points in shape B may be associated with the sharper sounding inflections and movements of the tongue required to produce the word “kiki”. On the other hand, the roundness of shape A might resemble the rounded formation of our mouths when producing the word “bouba”. These types of findings suggest that our brains do make links between the way things sound and what they mean! 


So, what does this say about the arbitrariness of language? Based on this experiment, it seems as though the form of a word has the potential to carry valuable information about its meaning after all. Now people are actively looking at the vocabularies of real languages to see whether there are patterns in the words we used based on these types of sound-meaning links! It could be that our vocabularies are a mix of fully arbitrary words and words that have tighter (non-arbitrary) relationships between sound and meaning. And some people have even argued that it is the non-arbitrary words that got our ancestors started with language in the first place! This kiki/bouba effect will surely lead to many more explorations into this fascinating property of language!


Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Do Children Prefer to Learn from Adults or Other Children?

Written by: Jessica Huang

Children are like sponges – they readily soak up the information that’s around them! But how do children decide who to “soak up” this information from? Adults seem like the obvious choice, but what about their peers? Are there conditions under which children think other children know more about a topic than an adult? 


Previous studies have demonstrated that children generally consider adults to be more knowledgeable than their peers. This makes sense because, in general, adults do have more information. However, children don’t always prefer to learn information from adults! A study by Vikram Jaswal and Leslie Neely found that 3- and 4-year-old children prefer to learn information from a child, rather than an adult, when it is clear that the adult is unreliable. In this study, children saw an adult provide incorrect labels for common objects, (for example, labelling a shoe a “telephone”) and a child provide correct labels for those objects. Then, children saw a new object and heard the adult and child informants provide two different labels for it. Children participating in the study were more likely to say that the previously accurate child was right about the new object’s label. So, children are more likely to believe their peers if they have direct evidence that adults don’t know what they’re talking about! When else might they endorse their peers over adults?    

Mieke VanderBorght and Vikram Jaswal conducted a follow-up study investigating if children would trust other children to know more about particular topics than adults. 3-to-5-year-old children chose who would be better to learn from when the topic was either children’s toys or the nutritional value of food. It was expected that children would think that other children would know more about the toys, whereas adults would know more about the nutritional value of food.  

Participants were first introduced to a child and an adult. Then they saw different toys or food items. For each toy, children were asked, “Who would know what this toy does?” and for each food item they were asked, “Who would know why this food is good for you?” Children were instructed to choose between the child or the adult. As predicted, children across all age groups indicated that the child would know more about the toys, and the adult would know more about the food. 

They also looked at situational factors – what if the toy was the adult’s favourite toy and the child had never seen it before? Or what if the food was the child’s favourite food and the adult had never seen it before? In these cases, most children indicated that the child would know more about their favourite food, and the adult would know more about their favourite toy. These findings demonstrate that while children generally believe there are particular categories that a child might know more about (like toys), they flexibly use other information, such as an individual’s experience with an item, to decide whether a particular individual has the information they need. When told that the child knew nothing about the toy, children as young as 3 years old were able to take this into consideration and make the judgement that the adult would be more knowledgeable about this specific toy, due to their experience with it. 

More work remains to be done to see what other factors might influence children’s beliefs about who has the most knowledge. But, importantly, this research shows that children are selective sponges – they consider different factors before soaking up information!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Learning, Having, Trying: Children Select Objects to Achieve Their Goals.  

Written by: Claudia Sehl, MASc

Some theories of curiosity suggest that children prefer to learn about novel objects over familiar ones, as they provide a greater opportunity for learning. For instance, imagine there is a lionfish and a goldfish at a zoo. Children may prefer to learn about a lionfish instead of a goldfish, since they know little about lionfish. However, children may not always prefer novel things. For instance, if children were choosing a pet at a store, they may prefer the goldfish over the lionfish, as it is familiar to them. This example suggests that preferences for novel things depend on the goal to learn or have them, which is what we explored in two experiments. 

In one experiment, we showed 4- to 7-year-olds pairs of objects, such as umbrellas, chairs, cups, and lamps. One object in each pair looked typical, and the other looked atypical (e.g., a four-legged chair and a ten-legged chair; a normal umbrella and one with two canopies). Then, we asked children either which item they would rather have, or which item they would rather learn about. We found that 4-year-olds wanted to have and learn about the items equally, but children aged 5-7-years-old wanted to have the typical items and learn about the atypical items. Based on these findings, we expected that children avoided having novel objects as they posed greater risk than familiar ones. Novel objects, such as the ten-legged chair, could be cumbersome, break easily, or look strange amongst other furniture. 

In our next experiment, we explored which objects 4- to 6-year-olds preferred to try using. This judgment is particularly interesting, as trying out an object can serve different goals. Trying out an object could be like having it because it allows children the chance to use it. So, children may prefer trying familiar objects. However, trying objects could also serve as an opportunity for children to learn about them. If this is the case, children may prefer to try novel objects. Our results showed that although children again wanted to have familiar objects, they had no preferences for which objects they wanted to try using. Across these two experiments, we found that young children selectively seek novel or familiar objects in order to fulfill their goals of learning about or acquiring resources.  

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

How Can You Foster Children's Learning?

By: Julianna Lu

From birth, children are active participants in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Through observation, experimentation and participation with other children and adults, children build their understanding of the world. Nevertheless, there are ways in which parents and other caregivers can help children learn more efficiently. One effective teaching method is a concept known as social scaffolding. Based on Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory, social scaffolding is a technique in which a more competent individual provides a temporary framework to support children’s ability to build on their prior knowledge. This framework enables children to think at higher levels than they could manage on their own. As the name suggests, it functions similarly to the scaffolding used during construction; it provides support during the building, maintenance, and repair of structures.

There are three characteristics of social scaffolding: it is contingent, temporary, and involves a transfer of responsibility. Contingency refers to the way the expert adjusts their level of support based on the learner’s current level of ability. It requires experts to make appropriate judgments about the needs and quality of assistance that would most benefit the learner. For example, when learning how to ride a bike for the first time, it would not be helpful to immediately take off the training wheels. Instead, it might be more appropriate to begin with teaching a child how to steer, pedal and stop with the training wheels.

Social scaffolds are also temporary. As the learner begins to gain competence, support can be reduced. For example, once the learner is comfortable with riding the bike, you can slowly remove the training wheels. The last characteristic is the transfer of responsibility. This occurs when the learner internalizes their new knowledge/skills and can apply their knowledge independently. For example, after learning how to ride a bike smoothly without training wheels, the learner takes control in advancing their skills: learning how to do different turns, stops, etc.

Thus, social scaffolding is an excellent teaching method. It breaks up learning into chucks that are catered to the learner’s current level of ability. By providing this structure, children can incrementally build on their prior knowledge and become experts themselves.

You can try this at home!

·       Pick a goal-oriented activity (e.g., baking cookies)

·       Create a temporary framework (e.g., Show them how to measure out the ingredients. You can support them at first by just having them choose the correct cup with you and watching you scoop and measure and letting them pour it in the bowl carefully.)

·       Slowly reduce the level of support and provide the learner with a more active role (e.g., Once they are comfortable with pouring the measured ingredient in the bowl, let them try doing the measuring part.)

·       During the activity you can pause, ask questions and review – This is an excellent way to check on their understanding and keep them engaged!

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:


How Parents Can Support Children's Learning During Play

Written by: Venus Ho

Children love to play since it’s fun and enjoyable. However, play can also be a rich learning opportunity for children since they can freely use their imagination, learn to problem-solve, and engage in hands-on experiences with their environment. During free play, children explore various tasks and activities without the guidance of an adult, which allow for self-expression and creativity. When children play together, they can also learn how to cooperate and share with others. However, despite the benefits of free play, researchers have noted the importance of scaffold play, which is play that is both child-directed and guided by an adult. During scaffold play, the adult can introduce new ideas and concepts to the child, which can help promote learning. Below, we will go over some strategies that adults can use to support children’s learning through play:

Ask questions that stimulate discussion and encourage thinking

Although this strategy seems straight-forward, it may actually be difficult to do since adults are used to instructing children on what to do, instead of asking questions and listening to children’s responses. Research has shown that it can be helpful to give children the opportunity to practice communication by asking questions related to their play. For instance, if children are building a house, adults can ask, “How are you going to build the house?” or “What rooms do you need inside the house?” to encourage extended thinking about the concept. Similarly, if a child is playing with a toy car, adults can ask, “Why do people use cars?” to encourage the child to think about the real-world application of the concept. By inquiring about children’s understanding of a concept, adults can identify gaps in their knowledge and provide more information about the concept if needed. 

Giving enough time for children to answer questions

In addition to asking questions that encourage children to think, it is important for adults to give ample time for children to formulate their responses. Oftentimes, children may take longer to answer questions because they are thinking about their response and how to express it. This is important for adults to keep in mind because adults often follow up with another question or provide an answer to the question before the child has had enough time to answer. By giving children enough time to think about their responses, children are better able to practice their language skills.

Providing Feedback and Comments

Adults can also support children’s learning by providing comments on what children are doing. For instance, if adults ask, “What are you playing with?” and the child answers with the word “car”, adults can respond with “Oh, you are playing with a toy car.” This allows children to hear their response incorporated in a complete sentence, which can help with language development. Additionally, adults can provide definitions about concepts. For example, if a child is playing with a pencil, the adult can say, “You are playing with a pencil. Pencils are used for writing things.” This can enhance children’s knowledge about different concepts. Furthermore, adults can connect new concepts with background knowledge that the child already has. For example, if a child is playing with a train, the adult can bring up situations where the child has been previously exposed to trains, such as in a TV show or a book (“Is that train similar to the one we were reading about yesterday?”).

Therefore, adults can play an important role in children’s learning during play. By using these strategies, adults can support children’s learning by introducing new ideas and allowing children to practice their communication skills.



I Can't See it, But it's Still There! Fostering Object Permanence in Children.

By: Venus Ho

One of the major developmental milestones that children attain is the understanding of object permanence. Although the concept sounds complex, object permanence is simply understanding that an object continues to exist even if it cannot be seen or heard. When babies are very young, they do not understand that an object still exists when they cannot sense it. It's literally "out of sight, out of mind"! During this phase, when a toy is covered with a blanket, your child may give up searching for it quickly because they do not understand that it still exists.

The concept of object permanence was originally developed by Jean Piaget, who proposed that the skill did not develop in children until they were 8 months old. However, research by Baillargeon and colleagues has now shown that babies can understand object permanence much earlier, even when they are just 5 months old! Below, we have outlined some activities for you and your child that can help foster the development of object permanence.

Peekaboo is one of the simplest and most popular games to play with your baby to foster object permanence. You can either hide your face behind your hands or anything that can cover your face (e.g., blanket, book) and then shout "Peekaboo" as you reveal your face again.

This is another easy and fun activity you can do with your child. You can simply hide a toy under a blanket and then take it out again to reveal that it still exists. This activity can be even more fun if you have a toy that makes noises. When you cover the toy with the blanket, you can make sounds with the toy, showing your child that even though they cannot see it, the toy is still there!

For babies that are starting to learn how to walk, you can hide toys around your home in places that your child can easily find them. After hiding the toys, you can ask your child to find them. To make it easier, you can give your child cues about where the toy is (e.g., "You're getting closer!"). This activity can show them that even though they cannot see their toy, it has not disappeared and can be found again. This activity is also great for promoting muscle development and motor coordination skills!

This final activity requires collecting tube-like materials, such as PVC pipes or the leftover cardboard tubes from paper towel rolls. You will also require a small round object, such as a ball, that can fit through the tube. Next, you can choose to tape the tube vertically to a wall or hold the tube yourself. Now, when you put a ball inside the top of the tube, it will fall out from the bottom of the tube. With this activity, your child will be learning that even though the ball cannot be seen inside the tube, it is still there! Children also love playing with gravity, so this activity will definitely be a favourite.

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

Do you see what I'm saying? Infants and children look at your lips when you talk!

Written by: Ashley Avarino

We use the expression, “Do you see what I’m saying?” when we want to make sure someone understands us. But why would we ask if they can see what we’re saying, when spoken language consists of sounds? Although we might think of spoken language as something we only hear, there are actually visual elements of language, too. One of these is a speaker’s lip movements.  

Looking at someone’s mouth can give us information about the sounds they are making, and in some cases, this helps us understand what they’re saying. You have probably experienced this yourself if you have ever struggled to hear someone in a loud, crowded room – it becomes easier to hear what they’re saying when you look at their mouth.  

Is this something that only adults do? Or does your child also use lip movements to help them understand what someone is saying? Keep reading to find out! 

Research by David Lewkowicz and colleagues suggests that infants begin to look at a speaker’s mouth during their first year of life. These researchers had infants aged 4-months to 12-months watch a video of an adult speaking English. While the infants were watching the video, the researchers tracked their eye movements to see what part of the adult’s face they were looking at. They found that infants aged 4-6-months looked more at the adult’s eyes, but infants aged 8-12-months looked more at the adult’s mouth. This is neat, because it’s between the ages of 8-12-months that infants learn which sounds are important in their native language! This suggests that infants pay attention to as much information as they can, including lip movements, during this process. 

Older children also look at the mouth of someone talking to them. Elizabeth Morin-Lessard and her colleagues investigated looking to the mouth in infants aged 5-months to 14-months, toddlers aged 2-3 years, and children aged 4-5 years. They found that the only age group that did not prefer to look at the mouth while watching an adult talk was 5-month-olds. So, with the exception of the littlest among us, language learners spend a lot of time looking at their conversation partner’s mouth! 

You may be wondering what happens when we can’t see someone’s mouth, for example, when they are wearing a mask. Masks are important for keeping us safe during the pandemic, but they block access to a speaker’s lip movements. Does mask-wearing influence language development? 

The short answer to this question is: don’t worry! While the above research demonstrates that infants and children look at the mouth when an individual is talking, looking to the mouth is not necessary for language development. Children who cannot see the mouths of those they are talking to (e.g., children who are blind, or children in cultures where face coverings are common) do not experience any delays in their language development. Why not? Because the most important language cue is speech! And, language learners make use of many other linguistic cues, with lip movements being just one! For example, infants and children also pay attention to where someone is looking as they talk, and this can help them learn the meaning of words. (Stay tuned for our next language blog post, where we discuss the top 5 cues your child uses while learning language). 

It’s also important to remember that infants and young children receive most of their language input from primary caregivers. Many studies have shown that this is the most important language input for their language development. Your child will have plenty of opportunity to pay attention to your lip movements when you are home without a mask, to give them a little language boost!  


Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:


It’s broke, but can I fix it? Children make exceptions to ownership rights when it benefits the owner.  

Written by: Emily Stonehouse, MA

Typically, we are not allowed to use or modify other people’s property without their consent in order to protect their rights as owners. However, an interesting case arises when someone improves another’s property because this does not hinder the owner’s rights; in fact, it will usually benefit them, such as fixing their broken property. In a few studies, we examined what young children thought about such actions. We showed children two girls at a park, one of whom owned a broken hula. This girl was shown to go home, then we asked children several questions about what they thought of the other girl performing certain actions on the broken hula hoop. We found that 4- to 6-year-olds thought it was more acceptable to fix and replace the broken hula hoop than it was to look at, move, or even stand near it, regardless of whether the owner was a friend or stranger! 

Next, we investigated whether the type of improvement, and the owner’s desires, would influence children’s acceptability judgments. We showed 4- to 6-year-olds a scenario where an owner had a mailbox that was either broken, or was a different colour from what the owner wanted. We then asked about the acceptability of a non-owner either fixing it (objective improvement), or painting it the owner’s desired colour (subjective improvement). We found that children judged it acceptable for the non-owner to fix the broken mailbox, replicating our previous work. However, children judged it unacceptable for the non-owner to paint the mailbox the owner’s preferred colour, even though it fulfilled their desires. This suggests that young children don’t consider all types of improvements in the same way, and that they make exceptions to ownership rights when actions involve objective, but not subjective, improvements. 

Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:

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