How children learn science

One of the things that any teacher soon realizes is that students come into your class with all manner of theoretical structures in their minds, even if they have never formally studied that topic or even consciously thought about it. People create these structures in order to successfully navigate the world and as long as it works to answer their immediate problems, the fact that it is wildly off from what the scientific community believes is not a hindrance to their adoption.

In physics, for example, the belief that the different seasons are caused by the degree of proximity of the Earth to the Sun as it goes around in its orbit is one such belief. Another is the idea that electric current comes out of the outlet in the wall, travels through the wires to the device it is powering and gets used up there. When teaching physics, one has to be aware of the existence of prior knowledge structures like these if one is to successfully counter them.

This happens with very young children as well and much of this comes through the use of language. Adults use locutions that they may not realize lead to children getting the wrong idea about things. This paper examined beliefs about aging among 3 to 5 years old children and found that because birthday parties are seen by children as discrete markers that correlate with the move from one age to the next, some children got the idea that birthday parties are what cause people to get older.

Here are excerpts form the paper with citations omitted.

Overall, results of this study revealed some degree of confusion in preschoolers about the role of birthday parties in aging, with many children appearing to afford them a causal role. Children of all ages seemed to believe that not having a birthday party can halt, or possibly even reverse, the aging process and that having multiple parties can speed it up.

Given children’s propensity to seek unobservable causal mechanisms for events, this attribution of a causal role to a cultural event might be unexpected. On the other hand, we know from other research that children, like adults, are especially driven to seek explanations for personal, meaningful events. We suggest that the annual experience of the seemingly sudden change from one age to another is an event of great significance and meaning to preschool-age children in particular, and that this salience drives children to seek an explanation for the apparent change. This drive, combined with the ubiquitous human tendency to misattribute causation in the presence of simple co-occurrence, results in the belief that the birthday party causes the age change.

I was reminded of an earlier study that found that preschoolers thought that clothes generate heat. When looked at closely, this belief seemed to arise from adults telling children things like “Wear your warm jacket because it is cold outside”.

How children learn is an endlessly fascinating subject.


  1. flex says

    If you haven’t encountered the works of Jean Piaget, you might enjoy them. His work is a little dated, but quite accessible. Many of the books include the interviews with the children he was studying so you can get the (translated) dialog directly.

    One of my favorite was questions about why boats float. Younger kids will say that it’s because the lighter things float, but then they were handed a light pebble and a heavy chunk of wood and were shown that the wood floats while the pebble sinks. That mystified the children. As the interviewer asked the same question to older children, the children started to get that there was a difference between weight and density. It’s like we learn by using broad strokes to generate an explanation, but then we get an exception and need to either just accept the exception or re-think how we perceive the world. Regrettably, some people never do the latter.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    Heh. When my mother was finishing her Bachelor of Education degree in the 1970s, I remember her coming home once and saying, “If one more prof mentions Piaget, I am going to scream.”

    True, his work was groundbreaking at the time, acknowledging that children are NOT just little adults and that how they thought was different, and that needed to be taken into account. A lot of the educational changes in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in elementary school, were inspired by his work.

    On the flip side, when I was in University, one of my psychology profs told a story about one of Piaget’s students who tried doing one of the usual conservation tests (pouring water from a short fat glass into a tall thin glass) on the daughter of somebody else at the school, and being told, ‘that one looks like it has more, but you should talk to my brother, he has conservation already’. Children’s thought processes may not be as solid as adult ones, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid.

    To a large extent, it’s all about internalizing the rules of the world around you, starting with ‘yes that thing still exists even if I can’t see it right now’ and going on from there. This is part of why ‘be consistent with your rules’ is standard parenting advice. It’s also tied into why children who never have to deal with the consequences of their actions grow up into adults who expect to not have to worry about consequences…

  3. Callinectes says

    I remember concluding that the world as I knew it (aged four) represented its eternal state. My parents and grandparents had always existed, and always would. Kids my age were the only new things, and we would also always exist as we were, attending the same class at school.

    I also believed that my very name existed as a physical entity unto itself, and imagined it lurking unseen in my house. I resolved to find it, but never explained my perspective to anyone. I drove my parents to despair by endlessly asking them “Where’s [Callinectes]?” “You’re [Callinectes]! That’s you! Please, son…” Of course, I knew that, but I never expressed my frustration that they did not understand the true intent of my question.

  4. Mano Singham says


    That is pretty amazing, especially that you can recall it so well. I do not have such clear memories of what I believed as a very young child

  5. blf says

    Broadly following-up @5, one of my teachers knew that some rockets (such as (from memory) the Saturn V) burned H and O, and carried twice as much H as O. He insisted this was because half the H was combined with the O in the burning, and the other half of the H was for the exhaust to “push against” to propel the rocket.

    At the time I knew that was wrong but had difficulty in articulating why. My memory now is all(?) the other students though I was talking nonsense and thus the teacher was correct. Whilst I might have been somewhat nonsensical (I don’t recall any of my arguments other than pointing out H and O burn to form water, which is H2O, and thus twice as much H is needed as O), I do recall also being infuriated at the “I’m inarticulate so the teacher is correct” line-of-“reasoning”.

  6. Owlmirror says

    I note that one of the references to the paper is Bruce Hood’s Supersense, which I am working my way through now. Speaking of outmoded theories, he writes about the common belief, among adults, that people can sense when someone is staring at them. Hood points out that this appears to be based on the emission theory of vision, and while children often have this idea about how vision works, a surprising number of adults retain this idea even after being taught about photons and how vision works according to science.

    Hood has lots of interesting examples of children’s theories of mind. For example, children who like a toy would not mind having it “duplicated” (the duplicator is a trick, of course), but children who have a toy that they need for security, like a blanket or stuffed animal they drag around everywhere, and always sleep with, reject having it duplicated, or would reject a putative duplicate as not actually being the same (that is, the original has an unduplicable essence).

  7. robert79 says

    ‘I was reminded of an earlier study that found that preschoolers thought that clothes generate heat. When looked at closely, this belief seemed to arise from adults telling children things like “Wear your warm jacket because it is cold outside”.’

    Not only pre-schoolers!

    One of my first teaching experiences was teaching physics to 13/14 year olds. After teaching a lesson about energy, temperature, heat, heat capacity, heat conductivity, etc… I asked my class the following question:

    Which will melt faster, a snowman wearing a thick wool sweater or a “naked” snowman?

    To my great surprise (and frustration!) nearly the entire class answered that the snowman in a sweater would melt faster because the sweater made him warmer.

    As for misconceptions as a pre-schooler, I remember thinking at some point that pedestrian crossings worked the following way: “if all the people step on the white stripes, and all the cars drive with their wheels over the black stripes, then it’s impossible for them to collide and so everyone is safe.”

    I remember being shocked at some point, seeing a car cross a pedestrian crossing with its tires touching the white stripes (I had been faithfully jumping over the black stripes all this time!) Until, after some thought, I realised there were always going to be white stripes between the car wheels and so my reasoning must be wrong!

  8. Holms says

    I used to loathe hospitals and doctors, they were such scary places to my young mind with all their seriousness and urgency and dying people. That dislike of hospitals went on to give me a strong aversion to going to doctors with an illness because going to a doctor was seen to be the starting point of going to hospital, i.e. reporting an illness to a doctor was what made it serious.

    I’m glad I never had anything life threatening as a child, my aversion to reporting it would have killed me!

  9. Mano Singham says


    The snowman question is a very interesting one. Although the reason given by the students (that the sweater made him warmer) is clearly wrong, the correct answer and reasoning used to arrive at it requires some thought.

    This is a good example of people using level 1 thinking (quick and intuitive), rather than level 2 thinking (slow and analytical, looking at many possibilities). Getting students in the habit of using level 2 thinking is the real teaching challenge.

  10. Owlmirror says

    Wouldn’t the snowman wearing the sweater melt faster if the wool was a dark color, and this was happening when it was sunny? The sweaterless snowman would reflect the sunlight more.

  11. alanuk says

    Owlmirror #11 raises an interesting point -- people just do not understand heat transfer. My next blog post will be on ‘Newton’s Law of Cooling’ and the error made in my Physics A-level practical paper of 53 years ago.

    On the subject of heat transfer by radiation, the common mistake is to assume that, if a item appears white, it will be a poor emitter/absorber of IR radiation even though the wavelengths involved are very far removed from the visible spectrum. I will make this my next but one post:

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