Development and Change of Young Children's Misconceptions about Physics

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

The study investigates the sources of preschoolers’ naïve physics by drawing on recent findings about young children's cognition, such as children’s sensitivity to statistical structure, and their bias toward linking pieces of knowledge into congruent wholes. These basic-level findings provide feasible hypotheses about the origin and development of children’s misconceptions, and therefore provide testable guidelines for how to overcome their misconceptions early on. The study tests these hypotheses.


Testing takes place in day cares and elementary school, as well as the science museum in Cincinnati, OH.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is cross-sectional, and is designed to generate causal evidence through experimental methods. Learning in different contexts is compared against each other. Interventions therefore are experimental set-ups to teach children a certain scientific concept. Control conditions are created in order to isolate the factors that help children’s learning.

This project collects original data using survey research, including face-to-face structured interviewer-administered questionnaires, and face-to-face semi-structured/informal interviews. We develop training procedures to help young children learn about scientific concepts such as density.

For data analysis we aggregate children’s performance across children and determine the degree of success in various learning module in form of means and standard deviations. To test the effectiveness of the modules, we use standard statistical analyses, such as ANOVA, ANCOVA, t-tests, and non-parametric analyses.


Our first study has confirmed that even preschool children have a strong bias toward congruent pieces of information. When presented with information about two physical relations, for example about how dimension A is related to dimension B (A-B), and how dimension B is related to dimension C (B-C), preschoolers infer that the third relation (A-C) is congruent with the other two relations. Children have difficulty distinguishing between relations presented to them and the relation they inferred, underscoring the strength of their bias toward overall congruence. This finding support our hypothesis that children's active search for order and Gestalt can lead to misconceptions.

We furthermore found that the organization of stimuli in the immediate context matters for children's understanding about the density of materials. When density was manipulated in such a way that materials were either very dense or not very dense, preschoolers quickly tune in to differences in density (rather than differences in mass alone, or differences in volume alone). However, when the same stimuli were paired up in such a way that mass or volume were highly salient, the same children made density mistakes. The findings demonstrate the importance of structuring the learning environment appropriately. 

Publications & Presentations: 

Kloos, H. (2008). Will it float? How invariance affects children's understanding of object density. In B. C. Love, K. McRae, & V. M. Sloutsky (Eds.), Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 687-692). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Kloos, H. & Sloutsky, V. (2008). Removing the time crutch: Can preschoolers still make causal judgments? In B. C. Love, K. McRae, & V. M. Sloutsky (Eds.), Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1146-1151). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Target Population: 
Research Design: 


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