Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

"I Can Put It There Too!" - Flexible Object Categorization in Preschool Children and the Factors That Can Act upon It

Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

"I Can Put It There Too!" - Flexible Object Categorization in Preschool Children and the Factors That Can Act upon It

Article excerpt


It is widely accepted nowadays that preschool children have much more sophisticated categorization abilities than previously thought. Although there is a vast literature on thematic and taxonomic categorization at this age, we still know little about whether and how children flexibly switch between these sources of information. The present paper gives an overview about what we know so far in this area. After reviewing some of the studies that investigate flexible object categorization in children, the article summarizes results about the factors that can influence the expression of this ability in preschoolers (e.g., instructions, type of task, and cognitive inhibition). In the end, we discuss the implications for research in cognitive development, as well as for education.

KEYWORDS: categorization, flexibility, preschool children.

In order to function efficiently, the human cognitive system uses the ability to organize the world around it into meaningful categories. In other words, it categorizes a vast number of stimuli, and this process is essential for information processing mainly by its contribution to knowledge organization (Mareschal & Quinn, 2001). The difficulty in investigating categorization in children before they can accurately decode language and explore the relevant features of objects in complex ways has delayed our knowledge about early competence in categorization. The last decades of research have brought together with a refinement of methods a range of experimental data that describe categorization in early childhood. For instance, already at the age of 3 years children have access to multiple forms of categories - e.g., thematic ones (based on co-occurrence in space and time) and taxonomic ones (based on shared properties) (Deak & Bauer, 1995; Waxman & Namy, 1997). Moreover, developmental psychologists have begun to sketch a picture about flexible categorization early in ontogeny, which represents the ability to put an object in several categories according to different categorization criteria. For example, we can consider our dog as an animal, as a friend, or as a black and brown being. Adults can do this with ease (Barsalou, 1993, 2003; Ross & Murphy, 1999; Smith, Fazio, & Cejka, 1996). Flexible categorization gives us the possibility of better adapting to our environment, by the means of reconsidering the relevant features of a stimulus in the light of new contextual demands. Recent data on children prove that they too can alternate them quite early in their development (Blaye & Bonthoux, 2001; Deak, Ray, & Pick, 2004; Nguyen, 2007; Nguyen & Murphy, 2003).

This article is focused on object categorization at the preschool age and its flexibility. We first present the extant data on categorization and its flexibility in early childhood, namely between 2 and 6 years of age. Trying to draw a line and sum up what we know so far can help us find better ways to investigate the emergence of this ability, so important in later problem-solving. Then we outline the factors that influence flexible categorization at this age, both the external and the internal factors that can facilitate the expression of this ability. As we will see, internal factors are still understudied in relation with flexible categorization. The last section of this article discusses the relevance of this topic both for research and practice.

Before trying to accomplish the above mentioned goals, we will offer a very brief description of categorization in infants, as it is there where everything begins with respect to our topic.

Object categorization in infants

Already between 2 and 4 months of postnatal life, babies can discriminate simple bidimensional patterns (Fantz, Fagan, & Miranda, 1975, apud Madole, Oakes, & Cohen, 1993) - this indicates that categorization is a very early emerging ability (Courage & Howe, 2002; Hayne, Rovee-Collier, & Perris, 1987; Quinn, Eimas, & Rosenkrantz, 1993). …

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