Collaborative Research: The Role of Culture and Experience in Children’s Understandings of the Biological World

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This project is designed to discover how fundamental concepts of the biological world unfold in different learning contexts and across cultural groups. It seeks to document universal patterns in the acquisition of peoples’ most fundamental notions of the natural world, and at the same time to uncover differences which may illuminate the intimate connections among cultural practices and the organization of knowledge.


This study takes place in Chicago, IL and rural Wisconsin – in preschools, elementary schools and middle schools, community centers (e.g. American Indian Center of Chicago) and in participants’ homes.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is comparative, and is designed to generate evidence which is descriptive (ethnography, observation) and casual (experimental and quasi-experimental). This project collects original data using personal and videography observation, paper and pencil self completion questionnaires, and semi-structured and structured face-to-face interviews. Basic cognitive developmental tasks are used for experiments, and coding systems are utilized for more open-ended data.. This project analyzes CHILDES corpora database as a secondary data source. Standards statistical tests are used for analysis in most cases. For qualitative data, the project develops a coding scheme and then later on performs analyses of the frequency if different codes.


This will be clear in the papers in various stages of publication. We have found that language affects children’s biological reasoning, especially in younger children. For example, in the Indonesian language there is no sense in which humans can be considered animals. We find that 6-year-old Indonesian children are less likely to generalize a novel fact taught about humans to animals than are English-speaking children (Angorro, et al, 2008). We also have found that children have particular difficult with the concept “alive” and that they understand “living thing” much earlier than they understand “alive” (Leddon et al, 2008).

In another line of work we have examined spontaneous name generation by children and adults from an urban community, a rural majority culture community and a rural Native-American community. Urban children and adults primarily generate exotic mammals, especially compared with their rural counter-parts. Rural majority culture children and adults generate more native animals and the tendency to generate native animals increases with age. This trend is more pronounced with our Native American sample and their generation reflects the salience of clan animals. Strikingly, urban children and adults rarely generate native animals that one might see in a city (e.g. pigeons, squirrels). Instead their name generation may reflect the salience of exotic animals in children’s book and other media (Winkler-Rhoades, et al, 2010).

Current studies include the following:

1. Category-based induction. We have continued our studies of children’s inductive reasoning as a measure of how children conceptualize humans in relation to the rest of nature.  We have exciting new evidence that young, urban children have competing understandings of the role of humans in nature.  Recently we have preceded the induction task by reading 5-year-old urban children either a book that anthropomorphizes bears or a nature book on bears that does not do so. We find that the non-anthropocentric book leads to the absence of anthropocentrism in the subsequent induction task. We are currently writing up these studies for publication.

2. Truth-value judgment task. We have recently employed a task where puppets make claims or suggestions (e.g. “I think humans are mammals”) and children say whether the puppet is correct or not. With young urban children we find some intriguing inconsistencies in judgments: they say that humans are mammals and that mammals are animals but they deny that humans are animals. We recently have collected data with urban and rural Indian and rural European-American samples using this same procedure and are in the process of writing up these studies for publication.

3. Parent-child discourse in a natural context. We have begun recording conversations among parents and children in the context of ice fishing. So far we have recordings transcribed from seven families.  We are planning to extend this type of discourse context to berry picking.

4. Species relations task. We have developed a new species relations task where we have created a forest diorama to record how 3-4 year old children play with a set of native and exotic animals. We plan to use this diorama to examine parent-children interaction in a play context. At present we have focused on the spontaneous play of young children in this setting. They find the diorama to be engaging and we are recording speech, choice of animals to play with and animal, scene interactions. So far we have data from (rural) Menominee children, urban Native-American children and urban European-American children. Our informal observations suggest that Native children place (native) animals into appropriate context (e.g. placing the eagle at the top of a white pine tree) but European-American children appear to anthropomorphize animals (e.g using them to play tag etc.).


5. Children’s books. We have made substantial progress in coding children’s book authored and illustrated by Native versus non-Native persons. We are having both Native and non-Native research assistants code these books to see if ethnicity affects coding. So far our data suggest high reliability across coders and some striking differences between Native and non-Native illustrations. Several of these differences were anticipated. For example, Native book illustrations are more likely to use native animals and less likely to depict exotic animals. They are also dramatically less likely to anthropomorphize animals. But Native books are also more likely to depict scenes from an animal’s point of view, more likely to employ close-ups and more likely to use unusual angles. We have recently finished transcribing the text of these books and have begun coding for mental state verbs and other factors that may be linked to children’s conceptions of the natural world. We have a first draft of a paper on the illustrations in children’s books and we have begun to explore the implications of the striking cultural differences we have observed.

6. Children and psychological distance. To examine development of the relationship between culture, discourse, and concepts of nature, 5-7 year old Menominee and European American children also participated in species-relations interviews. The pattern of results is similar to that obtained for Menominee and European American adults. Menominee children were significantly more likely than European American children to describe personal utility associated with species, and to talk about cultural significance associated with species. Menominee children were also more likely than European American children to mimic the sounds animals make (e.g., hissing sound of a snake), suggesting that they were more likely to take the perspective of animals. None of the European American children mimicked the sounds of animals. A paper based on this work is almost ready for submission.              

7. Draw a forest. We have data from a draw a forest task from each of our primary study populations. Although our study is based on prior, closely related work by other researchers we have decided to develop a more comprehensive coding system to capture ecological relationship depicted in children’s drawings. We are currently coding these drawings.

Publications & Presentations: 

Links to publications can be found at Doug Medin's Publications page:

Leddon, E.M., Waxman, S.R., Medin, (in press). What does it mean to 'live' and 'die'? A cross-linguistic analysis of parent-child conversations in English and Indonesian. British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

Medin, D., Waxman, S., Woodring, J., & Washinawatok, K. (2010). Human-centeredness is not a universal feature of young children’s reasoning: Culture and experience matter when reasoning about biological entities. Cognitive Development.

Anggoro, F., Medin, D. & Waxman, S. (2010).  Language and Experience Influence Children’s Biological Induction.  Journal of Cognition and Culture. 10, 171-187.

Winkler-Rhoades, N., Medin, D. L., Waxman, S. R., & Woodring, J., Ross, N. O. (2010). Naming the animals that come to mind: Effects of culture and experience on category fluency. Journal of Cognition and Culture. 10, 205-220.

Herrmann, P., Waxman, S.R., & Medin, D.L. (2010). Anthropocentrism is not the first step in children's reasoning about the natural world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (22) 9979-9984.

Leddon, E. M., Waxman, S.R. & Medin, D.L. (2008). Unmasking “alive:” Children’s appreciation of a concept linking all living things. Journal of Cognition and Development. 9(4):461–473

Anggoro, F. K., Waxman, S.R. & Medin, D.L. (2008). Naming practices and the acquisition of key biological concepts: Evidence from English and Indonesian. Psychological Science. 19(4) 314-319.