When Children Ask, "What Is It?" What Do They Want To Know About Artifacts?

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Psychological Science


When children ask, "What is it?" are they seeking information about what something is called or what kind of thing it is? To find out, we gave 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds (32 at each age) the opportunity to inquire about unfamiliar artifacts. An ambiguous question was answered with a name or with functional information, depending on the group to which the children were assigned. Children were inclined to follow up with additional questions about the object when they had been told its name, but seemed satisfied with the answer when they had been told the object's function. Moreover, children in the name condition tended to substitute questions about function for ambiguous questions over the course of the session. These results indicate that children are motivated to discover what kinds of things novel artifacts are, and that young children, like adults, conceive of artifact kinds in terms of their functions.

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