Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen Jimmy and Nora were toddlers, we bought them great little plastic scooters to ride around the house. They were the perfect size for a small child. Yet Jimmy preferred to ride around on a plastic garbage truck instead, despite the fact that there was no steering wheel and the “seat” wasn’t nearly as comfortable, at least to our adult eyes:

i-d2da97e4fb34f85cd515cd4412ed05ef-deloache1.jpg

We figured this behavior was just one of Jimmy’s unique quirks. It didn’t really bother us, except for the knowledge that we could have saved 20 bucks on the “real” scooter if we’d only known he would end up preferring the garbage truck.

In 2003, Judy DeLoache and some of her colleagues noticed similar behavior in their own kids, and the children of their friends, and, unlike Greta and I, they decided to see if this type of behavior was part of normal toddler development. The pattern they had casually observed was similar to what we had seen: a small child will attempt to use an impossibly small object as if it was the real thing. Maybe they’ll try to put on their Barbie doll’s clothes, or ride in a matchbox car, or sit on a miniature chair.

DeLoache, with David Uttal and Karl Rosengren, set up play-rooms in two different labs, then introduced toddlers from 15 to 30 months old to the toys. Three of the toys in the room came in two different sizes — regular and eensy-weensy. When the tots were first brought into the room (one at a time), the full-size versions of the toys were there: a slide, a chair, and a car. Each was large enough for the kids to sit on or ride in. If the kids didn’t spontaneously play with the full-size objects, the experimenter encouraged them to do so, making sure they played with each large toy twice.

Then the kids were led briefly out of the room while the full-size toys were replaced with the tiny replicas. When they returned, everything was as before, except for the three smaller toys. Again, the toddlers were allowed to play freely, with the experimenter making sure that they played with each mini toy — the ones that were much to small for the kids to sit in or slide on. These adorable videos (click on photos to download) should give you some sense of what happened:

i-136417f8254f32655278717b13c65459-deloache2.jpg

i-4e939bf3eb7157fc00a7dc38135b8755-deloache3.jpg

Indeed, more than half of the 54 children tested attempted to use one of the toys as if it were the full scale version, making an “error of scale.” The researchers were careful to distinguish between “pretending” and making a real error of scale. For example, using your fingers to pretend to go down the slide wasn’t counted as an error — only actually trying to sit on the tiny playset and slide down it. Many children repeatedly made the same error. There was also a clear pattern to the errors, as this graph shows:

i-e3cc7bd57161668b8d01079f5d7f8650-deloache4.gif

The errors peak near the end of the second year of life. Deloache’s team says this suggests a real developmental phenomenon: that learning to recognizing an object is a separate mental process from deciding whether it’s the right size to use in real life, and that these two processes are acquired at different stages in a child’s development.

It would be interesting to see if toddlers make the same error with super-size objects. I know that I’ve seen them try to use things that are WAY too big for them. If you have similar stories about kids you know, the comments thread of this post would be a great place to share them.

J. S. DeLoache, D. H. Uttal, K. S. Rosengren (2004). Scale Errors Offer Evidence for a Perception-Action Dissociation Early in Life Science, 304 (5673), 1027-1029 DOI: 10.1126/science.1093567

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Padilla
    September 24, 2008

    I have something to add. Though it’s not an error of scale, I feel it must somehow be related.

    I was standing behind an audience at a puppet show, listening to their reaction. Many of the children were asking each other, “Are they real?”

    At first I thought to myself, ‘of course they are real puppets.’ But then it occurred to me that the children were wondering if the puppets were real PEOPLE.

    It was adorable. And perhaps in some way, it is related to errors of scale, since if in fact the puppets were real people, they would be as small as infants.

  2. #2 Ropty
    September 24, 2008

    Following Greg, one thing I always find interesting (amusing?) about young children and puppets, is that they know that they are puppets, and know that the puppet needs a person’s hand inside to move, but still talk to the puppet as if it was a real independence thing.

  3. #3 Becca
    September 24, 2008

    I wonder if toy trucks are most loved at 20.4-24 months. Afterall, isn’t that when they would best be mistaken for real (i.e. Mommy/Daddy-sized) trucks?

  4. #4 The Nerd
    September 24, 2008

    I can’t help but wonder if part of it is a “thinking out loud” process, where they externalize their thought processes by acting out what they associate with the object. I know I sometimes talk out loud to myself as an adult (when nobody else is around), and even talk with my hands on occasion; I don’t see why pre-verbal children would do any different in their own way.

    On a different note: AWW… SO CUTE!

  5. #5 hxflyer
    September 24, 2008

    well, I have a story about myself, my parents told me when I was 2 years old , we went to the zoo which is in the changsha city of china, and we saw alot of different animals ,when we went back ,my father ask me which is the most interesting thing, I said the most interesting thing is the huge sparrows,(actually they are eagles, hornbills and ostrichs),my father laughed and tell me that’s not sparrows, but I still can’t separated them out, it’s become one of my story when I grown up.

    It’s like children will recognize the main shape and figure of object into their memory, when they meet the same figure object in wrong size,because they nerver learned what is “fake” and what is “real”, they still classify it in the same category as they have saw before. I think most of them will think it was weird size,but they will still going use the old knowleged of this object’s category to interact.

  6. #6 hxflyer
    September 24, 2008

    and also , If we give a list of features of how the baby develope the cognition by time, I thinks the first is color and sound, second is figure, third is size (when the user familiar use perspective eyesight and know how to compare size from different stuff),fourth is motion , and then the texture, taste (this is why the baby always try to put everything in mouth, it’s should not because they are hungry..) , context of environment come after, and also during all the time, the baby always trying to interact with the object and get response.

    and more , I believe many constitutionally cognition such as be able to distinguish creature and unanimal object in early days are from gene.

    just supposition.

  7. #7 margaret
    September 24, 2008

    I wonder if this could also include the whole full glass phenomenon with children. When I used to babysit the kids would get upset if they thought they did not have the same amount of juice as someone else. What I did was put the amount in a smaller cup but fill it to the top to make them think they had the same amount. Problem solved. Could this be part of the same process?

  8. #8 Avi
    September 25, 2008

    Well one common “error” with super-size objects might be the wearing of shoes. I know when I was younger I tried wearing my Dad’s office shoes that were impossibly large from me. And I have seen my younger cousins try to wear older relatives’ shoes. But this may not be due to a size perception error as much as a desire to emulate older adults.

  9. #9 TJ
    September 25, 2008

    That second video is so cute. The toddler apparently decides “this lady obviously isn’t going to help me, I’ll go ask Mommy!”

    I don’t remember what age he was, but my oldest son would do great imaginative play with common objects (e.g. fishing with a stick). We’d end up buying the thing as a toy (e.g. a toy fishing tackle set) and he’d stop playing with either one!

    Margaret, I believe what you are referring to is called “conservation of (volume?).” It is a well-documented stage in cognitive development, e.g. the Piagetian model, and that transition is made at a later age than what is being shown here.

  10. #10 ScienceWoman
    September 25, 2008

    This is so interesting because it is something I’ve noticed in Minnow as of late (age 20 months). She has some small cars and farm animals (from FisherPrice) and she will sit on them and try to ride them, even though they are <2 inches long.

  11. #11 Nick
    September 25, 2008

    Several of the posts here relate pretty well to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Representational thought and symbolism, conservation tasks, etc.

    I liked the idea that was posted regarding children who might be acting out their private speech. However, that wouldn’t apply to all of their private speech. For example, many kids ask for a drink of water by simply saying “drink”, but they don’t make the motions associated with drinking the beverage. I wonder if children who were raised using baby sign language are more likely to act out their private thoughts compared to children who were not raised using baby sign language. Maybe that’s why some of these kids acted out their thougts while others did not.

  12. #12 Andrew Mackay
    September 26, 2008

    There is a toddler’s programme on children’s BBC TV in the UK called “In the Night Garden”. Actors in costume have all manner of adventures with strange vehicles, buildings and other toy-like objects. It’s immediately obvious to an adult that the programme deliberately distorts physical scale. In one shot, the “pinky-ponk”, (a sort of airship), appears to be quite small when seen in flight against a background of trees, but the next moment it has landed, and it seems enormous compared to the characters. Objects which seem enormous when charcters crawl inside them suddenly seem quite small when the charcters are standing beside them.

    I have noticed that when adults watch the programme, they are often disorientated by the scale of things in this environment, whereas young children just watch and accept the distortion.

    Perhaps we can get a taste of what it’s like inside a child’s mind by watching this programme.

    By the way, my two children (aged 2 and 4) are also called James and Nora!

  13. #13 Bonnie
    September 26, 2008

    I think what is hilarious is how kids have a radar for “real” stuff – our neighbour’s 2-year-old is always more interested in *real* keys than in the Fisher Price set that his parents purchased for him. I wonder if you could replicate this experiment using different sized, but *real* items (as opposed to toys), e.g., keys, cell phones, etc.

  14. #14 Sarah Lipman
    October 1, 2008

    Isn’t it possible that rather than being oblivious to the scale mis-match, the kids are puzzled by it (ie, conscious of it) and trying to figure out how to use these toys? From a toddlers point of view, lots of things are magical. Maybe if you sit on this slide, either you or the slide will adjust to fit?

    Visually, they “know” how the toys are supposed to work, but that knowledge primes them to expect the same interaction the next time, which might interfere — or commandeer — their attention. Which might lead them to just try using the mini-toy despite the scale problem, “just in case”.

    If a group of toddlers were exposed to unfamiliar mini toys first, might they experiment with more atypical, but scale-appropriate play behaviors?

  15. #15 Sarah Lipman
    October 1, 2008

    Isn’t it possible that rather than being oblivious to the scale mis-match, the kids are puzzled by it (ie, conscious of it) and trying to figure out how to use these toys? From a toddlers point of view, lots of things are magical. Maybe if you sit on this slide, either you or the slide will adjust to fit?

    Visually, they “know” how the toys are supposed to work, but that knowledge primes them to expect the same interaction the next time, which might interfere — or commandeer — their attention. Which might lead them to just try using the mini-toy despite the scale problem, “just in case”.

    If a group of toddlers were exposed to unfamiliar mini toys first, might they experiment with more atypical, but scale-appropriate play behaviors?

  16. #16 Rebecca C.
    October 23, 2008

    Stop it, all of you! You’re making me want to have babies so I can track their cognitive development and chuckle at their misconceptions.

  17. #17 Sylvia C.
    October 24, 2008

    I remember doing such things as a child. Perhaps it starts out as a confusion of scale issue. But what I remember is more the idea expressed above about the wrong sized toy or object allowing me to use my imagination to magically wonder whether it would act – or change to become – like the real thing.

  18. #18 Sylvia C.
    October 24, 2008

    I remember doing such things as a child. Perhaps it starts out as a confusion of scale issue. But what I remember is more the idea expressed above about the wrong sized toy or object allowing me to use my imagination to magically wonder and experiment with whether it would act – or change to become – like the size of the usual object or whether I could change size to fit it. Kind of like Alice in Wonderland when she and other creatures and things shrink and expand.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!