The Fragility of Childrens Understanding of Scale Models

Despite the apparent simplicity of the model, very young children have great difficulty using it. These results are summarized in Figure 8.1. Children younger than 3 years of age usually perform very poorly (only about 20% correct retrievals). The difficulty that children encounter cannot be attributed to forgetting the location of the toy that they observed being hidden. Almost all children succeed on the memory-based search in which they return to the model to retrieve the miniature toy. Thus, 2%-year-olds can remember the location of the toy in the model, but they tend not to use this knowledge to find the toy in the room. Figure 8.1 also reveals that most 3-year-old children succeed in the standard model task (averaging over 85% correct searches).

The success of the 3-year-olds whose performance is shown in Figure 8.1 is not, however, the end of the developmental story. Although 3-year-olds can solve the standard model task, they have great difficulty even if seemingly minor changes are made in the procedures. For example, DeLoache, Kolstad, and Anderson (1991) found that young children's performance depends very much on the physical similarity between the model and the room. When the furniture in the model and the room are extremely similar in appearance, 3-year-olds are very successful. However, if the objects in

Figure 8.1 Children's performance in the original model study. Adapted from "Rapid Change in the Symbolic Functioning of Very Young Children," by J. S. DeLoache, 1987, Science, 238. For the symbol-based retrieval, children saw the miniature toy hidden in the model and then searched for the corresponding larger toy in the room. For the memory-based retrieval, children returned to the model and searched for the miniature toy. Note that only the symbol-based retrieval requires that children use the relation between the model and the room to find the toy.

Figure 8.1 Children's performance in the original model study. Adapted from "Rapid Change in the Symbolic Functioning of Very Young Children," by J. S. DeLoache, 1987, Science, 238. For the symbol-based retrieval, children saw the miniature toy hidden in the model and then searched for the corresponding larger toy in the room. For the memory-based retrieval, children returned to the model and searched for the miniature toy. Note that only the symbol-based retrieval requires that children use the relation between the model and the room to find the toy.

the two spaces are dissimilar, the children perform at chance levels. Similarly, if the furniture in the model and in the room do not occupy the same relative spatial positions, performance deteriorates substantially (DeLoache, 1989).

Instructions are also critically important in children's comprehension and use of the model-scale relation (DeLoache, 1989). In the standard version of the task, we provide very specific and elaborate instructions about the correspondence between the model and the room. Providing less detailed instructions reduces 3- and even 3^-year-old children's performance to near-chance levels. It is not enough simply to tell the children that Little and Big Snoopy's rooms are alike and that the toys are hidden in the corresponding places in the two rooms. Instead, we must explicitly describe the relation and point out the correspondences between objects in the model and in the room (DeLoache, de Mendoza, & Anderson, 1999). Older children are less dependent on information from the experimenter. Four-year-olds can succeed with the less detailed instructions described above, although they still need explicit information about the general model-room relation. Older children are more able to detect the relation on their own. A group of 5- to 7-year-old children were shown the model, the room, and the two toys. They then observed a hiding event in the model and were asked to find the larger toy in the room (with no explanation of the relations between the spaces or the hiding events). Most of these older children inferred the "rules of the game" from this very minimal information and successfully retrieved the toy.

Even when children do initially grasp the relation between the model and the room, they may still have difficulty keeping track of the relevance of this relation for finding the toy. Uttal, Schreiber, and DeLoache (1995) showed that having to wait before using the information in the model to find the toy in the room caused 3-year-olds' performance to deteriorate dramatically. The task began as it usually does, with children watching us hide the toy in the model and then attempting to find the corresponding toy in the room. There was, however, one difference: We inserted delays between when the children saw the toy being hidden in the model and when they searched in the room. The delays were of three different lengths: 20 seconds, 2 minutes, and 5 minutes. Across the six search trials, all children experienced each of the delays twice. Different groups of children received the delays in one of three different orders. The groups were labeled in terms of the delay that they experienced first: the short-delay-first group had a 20-second delay first, the medium-delay-first group had a 2-minute delay first, and the long-delay-first group had a 5-minute delay first. After the initial trial, the children in each group received trials at the other delays, with delay length counterbalanced over trials.

As shown in Figure 8.2, the length of the initial delay greatly affected children's performance. The long-delay-first group performed poorly on all trials, but the short-delay-first group performed well on most of the trials. We can rule out one possible explanation for the poor performance of the long-delay first group: that children could not remember the location of the toy in the model during the initial delay. If this were true, then the children should perform much better on the shorter delay trials that followed the initial long delay. But this did not occur; the long-delay-first group performed generally poorly on all subsequent trials, even those trials with the short (20-second) delay that normally would give them little, if any, problem. Moreover, children could find the toy in the model even after the long delays. Thus they did not forget where the toy was hidden in the model; they instead forgot that the model could help them find the toy in the room. Uttal et al. (1995) concluded that, during the initial long delay, the children in the long-delay-first group lost track of the relation between the model and the room. Consequently, when they entered the room to search for the toy, they did not use the location of the toy in the model as a guide for searching in the room. The initial delay disrupted their tenuous grasp on the relation between the model and the room. Once the knowledge that the model could help was lost, the children continued to perform poorly, even on the subsequent, shorter delay trials.

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