The Design of the Learning Environment Shapes Preschoolers’ Causal Inference

AbstractIn the present study, we examine whether the design of the learning environment can impact causal inference in very young children. Specifically, we assess whether the physical features of a novel toy can facilitate children’s recognition of an abstract, relational hypothesis (same-different) that they typically fail to discover. Three-year-olds were presented with an identical pattern of evidence that was consistent with a relational hypothesis (i.e., pairs of same or different blocks cause a toy to activate) using one of two causal toys. In the standard condition, blocks were placed in pairs on top of the toy, while in the relational condition, each block was placed inside one of two transparent openings on either side of the toy. The physical design of the latter toy was intended to highlight the relationship between pairs of blocks. Results suggest that even 3-year-olds’ causal inferences are sensitive to design, with children in the relational condition more likely to infer the abstract relation than those in the standard case. These results provide strong evidence that design serves as a constraint on causal inference in early childhood. Findings are discussed in terms of their implications for creating intuitive learning environments for young children.

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