Experiments to do at home with your children

I am Sarah Rose, the Course Leader for the BSc Psychology and Child Development Award and while I have been at home with my children, I have been having a go at recreating some classic cognitive psychology experiments with them. Today we had a go at some of the classical Piagetian Tasks. These tasks are particularly suitable for children between the ages of about 4 and 8 years old. We would love to hear how your children got on with these experiments, please tweet us @StaffsPsych or add your comments to this post!

Background

Jean Piaget developed an influential theory of cognitive development, suggesting that as children grow older the way that they understand and think about the world alters. He was one of the first the argue that the way that young children understand the world is not just an immature version of adult understanding, instead he argued that it was fundamentally different. He developed a series of tasks, known as conservation tasks, which demonstrated this. I have had a go at recreating these tasks at home with my 4- and 6-year-old. If you cannot load any of the videos within the blog piece please watch them here.

Task 1: Conservation of quantity

Materials: Traditionally this task is done with water, but to make tidying up easier we used rice. In addition to this some plastic glasses (ideally transparent) of different shapes and sizes, although two of them need to be the same size, are needed.

Instructions:

  1. First, put an approximately equal amount of rice in the two glasses that are the same size.
  2. Ask your child if there is the same amount of rice in both.
  3. If they say ‘no’ encourage them to move a little from one to the other until they are happy that there is the same amount in both.
  4. Once they are happy with this ask them to pour the rice from one of the glasses into another one (ideally one that is noticeably taller and narrower, or fatter and wider).
  5. Now ask them if there is the same amount in both glasses, or if one glass now has more rice in than the other.
  6. You might be surprised by their answer, you could ask them to explain it to you.

Results: According to Piaget, and also my recreation of this experiment with my own children, under the age of about 6-years might struggle with this, and believe that by pouring the rice from one container to another the amount has actually changed. This suggests that their mental representation and understanding of quantity might be quite different to ours. I was interested to see how my 6-year old’s understanding was clearly still shifting and developing as he explained why it looked like there was more in one glass than the other but actually it was the same amount.

This is how my two children got on:

Conservation of quantity – 4-years old
Conservation of quantity – 6-years old

Task 2: Conservation of number

Materials: 14 counters of equal size, we used pennies as I could not find the counters. You might also like a Teddy Bear to act as an assistant!

Instructions:

  1. Place the counters in two rows so that both rows have the same number of counters and they are equally spaced.
  2. Ask your child if both rows have the same number of counters (hopefully, they will agree that they do but if they do not, just remove a counter from both rows until they agree that there is the same number).
  3. Now either you, or that cheeky Teddy assisting you, could move the counters in one of the rows so that they are spaced further apart. This will make one of the rows appear to be longer.
  4. Now ask your child whether there are the same number of counters in both rows, or whether one row has more counters than the other.
  5. Again, you might be surprised by their answer and you could ask them to explain their thinking to you.

Results: Again, children under the age of about 6-years old may struggle with this. It has been found that making slight adaptions to Piaget’s original task, such as having a naughty Teddy assist, can help children of a younger age to pass this task. It was still a bit tricky for my 4-year-old though!

Conservation of number – 4-year old

Task 3: Conservation of mass

Materials: Two balls of play dough that are different colours. A surface that you can roll the play dough on.

Instructions: Take the two balls of play dough and roll them into balls. These two balls should be the same size, and you should check with your child to make sure that they think they are the same size too! If they do not adjust the size by removing small amounts from the one that they think is biggest until they are happy that they are both the same size. Now, while your child watches, take one of the balls and roll it so that it becomes more of a cylinder shape. Once you have done this ask your child whether both shapes have the same amount of playdough, or whether one has more than the other. Again, you might be surprised by their answer and you could ask them to explain their thinking to you.

Results: Children younger than about 7-years-old are likely to tell you that the amount has changed. Piaget found that children did not show adult understanding all his conservation tasks at the same point, rather as they developed, they would ‘pass’ some before they passed others. This task involving mass is often passed later than those involving quantity or number. Again I found it really interesting to see the difference in my 4 and 6-year olds understanding.

Conservation of mass – 6-year old
Conservation of mass – 4-year old

We would love to hear how your children got on with these experiments. Please tweet us @StaffsPsych!

If you have not been able to view the videos within the blog piece you can find them all here.


The Department of Psychology at Staffordshire University offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Psychology at the University’s £30 million Science Centre in Stoke-on-Trent. The department is home to the Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research, a large and active group of psychologists, PhD students and researchers conducting work into a variety of psychological disciplines and topic areas.

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