specific. For example, in physics, children observing a rolling ball understand that the ball has no “desire” to roll down a ramp and that when it hits a wall it doesn’t “want” to hit the wall. In contrast, in the psychological domain, children do think a person or animal might have the desire to go down a ramp in order to find food at the bottom or that a person might want to hit a wall because she is angry. Children understand that the causes of physical events are fundamentally different from the causes of psychological events.

Another example of this domain-specific reasoning can be observed in the questions children often ask about living things, in contrast to the questions they ask about manufactured objects. In studies, the questions they ask vary systematically. Children know to ask what a tool, such as a wrench, is used for. They recognize that tools, like many other manufactured objects, often have a purpose. They also recognize that living things, such as tigers, don’t have the same practical purpose as tools. Their questions about living things therefore do not usually focus on what the living thing is used for or what its purpose is.

This pattern of thinking or applying reasoning in a consistent way within a domain of knowledge but in different ways across domains of knowledge seems to hold true regardless of a child’s culture or language. Recognizing that virtually all children arrive at school with these types of sophisticated reasoning skills and knowledge is the first step toward building on and supporting effective, ongoing science learning.

Besides their conceptual understanding of the world, children bring to school a variety of general reasoning abilities that can form the underpinnings of scientific reasoning. Preschoolers can be exquisitely sensitive to abstract patterns in the world, and they can use this sensitivity to guide how they think about the behaviors of objects, the nature of living things, the layout of things in space, and many other ideas. For example, young children and even preverbal infants seem to have a strong sense of the principles of cause and effect that goes beyond merely noticing that two things happen together. They have reasonable expectations about how causes precede effects and how certain kinds of causes are linked to specific kinds of effects. Categorization, induction, and many other forms of reasoning seem to be guided by such abstract forms of information.

The foundations of modeling are also evident in young children. Long before they arrive at school, children have some appreciation of the representational qualities of toys, pictures, scale models, and video representations. In pretend play, children may treat one object as a stand-in for another (a block for a teacup; a banana for a telephone), yet they still understand that the object has not really changed its

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement