Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

The Medium Is the Message: Pictures and Objects Evoke Distinct Conceptual Relations in Parent-Child Conversations

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

The Medium Is the Message: Pictures and Objects Evoke Distinct Conceptual Relations in Parent-Child Conversations

Article excerpt

An important developmental task is learning to organize experience by forming conceptual relations among entities. (For example, a lion and a snake can be linked because both are animals; a lion and a cage can be linked because the lion lives in the cage.) We propose that representational medium (i.e., pictures vs. objects) plays an important role in influencing which relations children consider. Prior work has demonstrated that pictures more readily evoke broader categories, whereas objects more readily call attention to specific individuals. We therefore predicted that pictures would encourage taxonomic and shared-property relations, whereas objects would encourage thematic and slot-filler relations. We observed 32 mother-child dyads (M child ages = 2.9 and 4.3) playing with pictures and objects, and identified utterances in which they made taxonomic, thematic, shared-property, or slot-filler links between items. The results confirmed our predictions and thus support representational medium as an important factor that influences the conceptual relations expressed during dyadic conversations.

A key developmental task is learning to organize experience and relate different kinds of entities to one another. There are different ways that entities interrelate, including taxonomically (belonging to the same kind; Gelman & Markman, 1986), thematically (interacting in the real world causally, functionally, spatially, or temporally; Smiley & Brown, 1979), shared properties (having common features, such as shape or color; Smith, Jones, & Landau, 1996), or slot-filler (filling the same role in a familiar script or schema; Lucariello & Nelson, 1985). Each is uniquely important to a fully functional understanding of the world. For example, taxonomic relations are particularly useful for forming categories and making inductive inferences; thematic relations reveal how items function and interact; shared properties reflect dimensions along which items can be compared; and slot-fillers reflect scripts and schémas.

Children's capacity to use different conceptual relations to interrelate entities is often tested in free-sorting or match-to-sample tasks. For example, children are given a set of items and are asked either to put together things that are alike or to choose an item that "goes with" a target item. Different relations exist among the items, such as taxonomic matches (e.g., linking a dog and a lion) or thematic matches (e.g., linking a dog and a bone). Results of early research using these methods suggested that there might be developmental shifts in the significance of different kinds of relations. For example, some studies demonstrated a shift between preschool and early elementary school from organizing entities thematically to organizing them taxonomically (Blanchet, Dunham, & Dunham, 2001; Smiley & Brown, 1979), whereas other research demonstrated a developmental shift in the reverse direction - from organizing entities taxonomically to organizing them thematically (for a review, see Gelman, Coley, Rosengren, Hartman, & Pappas, 1998). However, the developmental shift view has been challenged by findings showing that no single type of relation dominates at any age (Horst et al., 2009; Lin & Murphy, 2001; Waxman & Namy, 1997). Instead, young children access multiple types of relations and exhibit substantial conceptual flexibility in their use of different relations (Blaye & Jacques, 2009; Kalish & Gelman, 1992; Nguyen & Murphy, 2003).

Given this conceptual flexibility, an important question is what factors encourage children to focus on one versus another type of conceptual relation. Prior research has identified several factors that play a role, including the procedure (e.g., sorting into bags vs. visible piles; Markman, Cox, & Machida, 1981), verbal instructions (Deák & Bauer, 1996; Markman & Hutchinson, 1984; Tare & Gelman, 2010), stimulus type (e. …

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