At what age do children see race?

Are children aware of race? If so, do they treat people of their own and other races differently?

These are questions that have come to the forefront of the national media in recent times, as when CNN’s Anderson Cooper commissioned a special study for his show. To begin to assess whether young children in modern America show a basic preference toward people depending on race, Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University carried out a series of studies with European-American children.

At what age do children see race2In a study with infants, babies encountered both a European-American female and an African-American female who offered a toy. The researchers were interested in whether babies would be more likely to accept the toy from the European-American female. If so, the study could be taken as evidence that, by the time they are 10 months of age, infants have come to prefer their own racial group. However, this was not the case; the infants were equally likely to choose from the European-American female as they were from the African-American female.

In their next study, the researchers asked 2-and-a-half-year-olds to give a present to either of the same two individuals as in the study with 10-month-olds. The results showed that, yet again, children’s preferences did not depend on the race of the individual. However, the story with the 5-year-olds was very different: More than 90% of the children tested reported that they would prefer to be friends with the European-American individual.

While more research is needed with different groups of children, Kinzler and Spelke write that these findings “provide a note of optimism that later race-based social preferences may not be a predetermined outcome.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Who teaches vocabulary to babies better, parents or DVDs?

Many parents want their babies to learn language as early as possible, and a whole industry has emerged with the intention of using videos to accelerate vocabulary growth. Do these videos actually deliver on their promise?

To examine this important question, developmental psychologist Judy DeLoache at the University of Virginia led a recent study published in Psychological Science. In the study, DeLoache and her colleagues had infants ranging in age from 12 to 18 months undergo one of three experiences during a month-long period.

baby watching tvA third of the babies’ parents were told to have their baby watch a popular 40-minute long DVD aimed at boosting vocabulary. Although the authors do not disclose the title of this DVD, they noted that it featured a voice labeling common household objects. Thus, a second third of the babies’ parents were told to watch the DVD with their infant. A final third were not given the DVD, but instead were given the list of words that the DVD aimed to teach, and instructed to attempt to teach these words to their babies.

After the month-long period of watching the DVD, the researchers tested the infants and found that the DVD had no effect on vocabulary learning, either when the baby watched the DVD by herself or when she watched the DVD with the parent. By contrast, the infants whose parents had tried to teach the words actually learned the words to a greater extent.

The conclusion is clear: no matter how visually interesting, baby media does not replace parents’ ability to help babies learn.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Cat in the Hat or Goodnight Moon? How Culture Teaches Kids ‘The Right Way to Be’ Emotionally

Do children throughout the world value feeling happy and excited? Or are these emotions susceptible to large cultural influences that dictate how children should want to feel?

In a groundbreaking series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai examined how children’s cultural background could impact their preferences for different emotions. Prior research with adults has shown that European-Americans value positive emotions to a considerable extent. By contrast, Taiwanese adults place a greater importance on calmness. Would these same patterns be observed in young children?

girl swimming in poolTsai and her colleagues asked preschoolers to look at two faces. One face had a big, wide smile while the other had a smaller smile. Children were asked, “Which smile would you rather be?” Next, the children were read a short story about characters that either liked to do such things as “jumping and splashing in the pool” or “sitting and floating on an inner tube in the pool.”

The results showed that children from European-American cultural backgrounds valued the big smile more than the Taiwanese children did. They also preferred the characters that were more “excited” in the pool, while the Taiwanese children showed exactly the opposite pattern.

Since the research showed that children from these cultural contexts do in fact show distinct preferences for different emotions, the researchers then looked at many of the most popular storybooks from these two cultural contexts. The results showed that Taiwanese storybooks had significantly more “calm” faces than American storybooks, which tended to have more “excited” faces among the characters.

Taiwanese girlCould it be possible that these storybooks are one of the reasons for children’s own preferences? In the last part of the study, Tsai’s research team read storybooks about either an “excited” character or “calm” character. Afterwards, Tsai had children state their preferences for excitement or calmness. The results showed when children are exposed to this kind of cultural material, they start inferring that what happened in the story is the “right way to be.”

Overall, Tsai and her colleagues note that “these findings not only demonstrate that cultural differences in ideal emotion emerge early in life, but also identify a specific pathway through which emotional values are culturally transmitted and learned.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Does Trust Depend on your Closeness with your Mother?

Children often learn the labels for objects by trusting in their parents’ explicit statements, such as “this is a cup.” However, what would happen if a stranger gave conflicting information? What if a stranger told the child that a cup was called a pen? Would children trust the information provided by their parent or by the stranger?

Does a a positive and responsive emotional experience during infancy have an impact on whether a toddler will trust a mother more than a stranger?

Does a positive and responsive emotional experience during infancy have an impact on whether a toddler will trust a mother more than a stranger?

Published in the journal Child Development, a study led by Kathleen Corriveau and Paul Harris at Harvard University revealed some surprising and important information about children’s tendencies to trust. Corriveau and her colleagues hypothesized that preschoolers who had a more positive and responsive emotional experience with their mother during the infant period would be more likely to trust information coming from her, while children who had a less positive experience would be more likely to trust the stranger.

The researchers measured the quality of the infant-mother bond when the children were around 15 months of age. This was done through a procedure called the “Strange Situation” in which a mother leaves her infant for a short time and researchers observe how the infant reacts. Infants who become distressed and are then able to be soothed are categorized as “securely attached” while infants who barely cry and hence don’t need soothing are categorized as “avoidantly attached.”

These categories are important and are thought to reflect the quality of caregiving, especially during the first year of life. Infants who are labeled as “securely attached” trust that their primary caregivers will return to them. They have had a history of trusting that their primary caregiver — often a mother — will meet their needs responsively, with affection and consistency. Secure attachment has been demonstrated to predict greater success in school, positive connections with teachers, and more positive interpersonal relationships.

When the infants in Corriveau’s study reached their fourth birthday, they were asked to come back for a second session. In this session, unknown objects were given certain labels by the mother, while a stranger gave the same object different labels. Would the children trust the information from their mothers or the stranger?

As children strive to learn, they are more likely to learn from people with whom they have had a positive emotional relationship.

As children strive to learn, they are more likely to learn from people with whom they have had a positive emotional relationship.

The results were striking. Children who had been classified as “avoidant” in infancy tended to trust their mothers much less than children who had been classified as “secure.”

This is a very important finding, for it suggests that as children strive to learn, they are more likely to learn from people with whom they have had a positive emotional relationship. This study has implications not only for parents and caregivers, but also for teachers.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Study Suggests Way to Reduce Classroom Aggression

In modern America, we often hear of children harming other children in school settings. Can anything be done to improve this situation?

In a recent study, David Yeager, Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck of Stanford University sought to examine whether the belief that people can change may impact aggression in the school context. The researchers were inspired by a body of work suggesting that believing people can change is associated with a host of positive outcomes, such as greater persistence on difficult tasks.

girls playing on playground

The study features three groups of 9th and 10th graders. A third of the teens participated in a six-session workshop where they learned that people’s personalities could change. A second third of the children participated in a workshop that focused on coping skills. The last third of the children did not participate in a workshop.

Four weeks later, the researchers carried out a procedure in which the teens thought they were playing a computer-based ball-tossing game with two other peers. In reality, the researchers controlled the other two “players” in the game, and these two “players” interacted with the teen by excluding him from the game.

The researchers were interested in whether the teens that learned that people could change would react less aggressively to this social exclusion. Aggression was measured by the amount of hot sauce that teens sent their “partner” to “try.” The results showed that the teens that had been in the coping skills workshop gave an average of 43 grams of hot sauce and the teens that hadn’t been through any workshop gave around 38 grams. By contrast, the teens in the “people can change” workshop gave about 25 grams, a quite significant difference.

Similarly, 50% of the children in this group gave more nice notes to the person who had excluded them, while only about 10% of the other groups gave nice notes. In fact, the children in these other groups actively described their intention to harm the “bully.”

Simply put, teaching children that people can change may trigger a systemic decrease in aggression, which may in turn reduce violence in America’s schools.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Pre-Natal Learning: Developing Food Preferences in the Womb

baby eatingExpecting mothers often worry that the food they eat may somehow affect their baby. Is this true?

If a mother consumes large quantities of carrot juice, will the baby like the taste of carrot? This is not a silly question. If food preferences can be shaped while still in the womb, it is possible that interventions may be successful at changing food preferences (as has been shown in previous research).

To seek answers to this question, Julia Manella and her colleagues at the Monell Chemical Senses Center asked expecting mothers to drink approximately one and a quarter cups of either water or carrot juice a total of four times a week for three consecutive weeks during the last trimester of their pregnancy.

Six months after the babies were born, and during the time in which the mothers had started giving the infants cereal, Manella brought the babies into the lab to observe their eating behaviors. The results showed that the infants whose mothers had consumed carrot juice during their pregnancy tended to look happier while eating a carrot-flavored cereal and actually consumed more of the cereal than the infants whose mothers had only consumed water.

Learning begins in the wombHow exactly did this happen? The researchers say the findings might be “attributable to the experimental effect of carrot juice in amniotic fluid or mothers’ milk.” They also say “very early flavor experiences provide the foundation for cultural and ethnic differences in cuisine.” For example, by exposing her fetus to a vegetable-rich diet, a mother may actually be introducing her fetus to a culture of vegetable consumption.

While more research is needed to better understand how this process unfolds, clearly this is an important study that highlights the fact that learning does not begin at birth. Learning begins in the womb.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

How to Get Your Child to Eat Their Veggies

VeggiesParents often wonder about how they can make their children eat healthy foods. Approaches can range from being a bossy “veggies are good for you!” to “if you eat your veggies, you’ll get a new toy!” to even hiding veggies in brownies! While these kind of appeals perhaps work for some children at least some of the time, new research suggests that teaching children about the nature of food may improve their vegetable intake.

In the study, Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman of Stanford University hypothesized that, because children are avid learners who are eager to learn about how the world operates, that children may benefit from knowing why eating a variety of good foods, such as vegetables, is a good thing to do.

In the first part of the study, half of the children were in classrooms where teachers read multiple books about food that had been specifically designed to teach concepts about nutrition. For example, one book described nutrients as “tiny things we can’t see, but which are important for our bodies.” Another book emphasized the importance of dietary variety (“Just one kind of food is not enough. People need to get nutrients from all types of foods.”) The other half of the children heard storybooks based on the USDA’s Team Nutrition guidelines.

After children had been exposed to the storybooks for a few weeks, Gripshover took them aside and asked them a variety of comprehension questions:

  • The children who had been exposed to the storybooks were more likely to report that it was important to eat more than just one kind of healthy food,
  • 47% of the children who had been exposed to the storybooks drew on the idea of nutrients to explain their answer,
  • Children gave a puppet a different food rather the same food, suggesting that they had learned that individuals really do need to consume all types of food in order to be healthy.

Result: 2x the veggiesAfter children’s compression was tested, Gripshover went into the actual classroom and observed children’s food intake during snack time. It was found that the children who had been exposed to the storybooks ate more vegetables than the children who just heard about the USDA nutrition guidelines. Specifically, children who heard the storybooks increased their vegetable intake from around five pieces, to eleven.

The researchers see considerable promise in this procedure, and note that they showed a “transformation from a view of food that includes little beyond eating, swallowing, and excreting to a view that food contains diverse, invisible nutrients that are excreted during digestion and carried around in the blood.”

By capitalizing on children’s eagerness to understand how things work, parents and teachers may be able to increase vegetable intake.

Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Bilingual Babies Might Be Smarter

Baby & Golden Gate BridgeWell, maybe not smarter, but new research suggests bilingual infants have more flexible cognitive functions.

Parents often assume that exposing their children to a different language will boost children’s academic potential in school. However, is it possible that even infants may benefit at the cognitive level from being exposed to more than one language?

This is precisely the question that Agnes Kovacs set out to test. In her study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, she compared the performance of 7-month old bilingual and monolingual infants on a novel task.

During the first part of the task, infants heard a fun, made-up sound just prior to an image, such as a puppet, showing up on one side of screen. Infants were exposed to these kinds of stimuli various times, so that they could learn that one particular sound was associated with one particular object that would show up on one side of a screen.

Once the infants had been exposed to these pairings for a long time, the task changed. Now, instead of the image on the screen showing up on one side of the screen, it showed up on the other, and kept showing up in this new location.

The crucial question was – would infants learn to look toward the other side of the screen, or would they all keep looking toward the side where they had been extensively trained to attend to during the familiarization phase?

The answer turned out to be that only the infants growing up in a bilingual environment seemed to update their strategy. These infants were faster to begin to look toward the other side of the screen once the new “rule” had been established. In other words, they were more flexible in their thinking.

This study is very important – it suggests that, even before infants start speaking, their exposure to different languages augments their mental capacities. Importantly, the effects weren’t simply due to bilingual infants coming from more educated or wealthier families. Thus, there is something about being exposed to different languages that seems to drive the ability to engage creatively with new stimuli in the world.

The study could have clear educational or policy implications. It is possible that even monolingual parents may be given materials in other languages, such as recordings that they could play to their infants. If so, this could be of massive help to children’s creative development. As the researchers note:

“crib bilingualism promotes the development of important cognitive control functions already at a preverbal age.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Hot Topics with Alison Gopnik, Ph.D

Alison_gopnikAn Interview with Alison Gopnik, Ph.D, Advisor, Center for Childhood Creativity
with Helen Hadani, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research, Center for Childhood Creativity

Helen: The mission of the Museum and CCC is “to ignite and advance creative thinking in all children.”  What do you think are some of the critical components of creative thinking? How do you see your research relating to creative thinking?

Alison: Creativity means being able to consider and explore many different options both hypotheses about what the world might be like and options for what do in the world. It also means putting together existing ideas in new ways. Our research suggests that children may be better at all of this than adults are. Computer scientists talk about a trade-off between “explore learning” and “exploit learning” and children seem to be on the “explore” side.

I would love to hear about the new book that you are writing. Would you mind giving us a preview of some of the main topics and what you are most excited about sharing in the book?

The tentative title is Parents Without Parenting and it’s a kind of “anti-parenting” book. I try to describe what science tells us about the relationship between children and parents, which is very different from the usual “parenting” picture. Briefly, instead of thinking of parenting as a kind of work with the goal of improving children, we should think of being a parent as being in a special kind of relationship with another person.

What are some of the hot topics in developmental research? Where do you see the field going in the next 10 years?

One very hot topic now is children’s social understanding – how they come to understand in-groups and out-groups, rules or norms, and social categories like race, nationality and gender. Even very young children seem to be more sophisticated in their social cognition than we would have thought. Another important development is the idea that children implicitly understand probability and make probabilistic inferences and deductions about the world around them. And there is just starting to be really interesting work on how children actively seek out information, from other people or from the world around them.

Gopnik_quote

Can you offer a few recommendations for how parents can foster learning in young children through shared experiences?

I think that children were designed to be apprentices of a sort — they are fascinated by seeing adults do something skillful. Often parents can integrate even very young children into what they would be doing themselves — cooking and gardening, or shopping or playing music are great examples, rather than doing some special thing that is just something you do with kids. My two-year-old grandson and I make pancakes together and water the plants every time he comes to visit. It takes a lot of patience — those pancakes will take at least six times as long as is if did them myself, but its a lot of fun for both of us. And he’s genuinely learning even at two! And going to science museums like the Bay Area Discovery Museum gives children and adults a chance to be in a shared, safe, public space with other people and children, at the same time that they can both be involved in learning simultaneously.

Our Creative Thinking Research Lab in the News

CCC Creative Thinking Research Lab

Caren Walker with a young subject in the Creative Thinking Research Lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum

Caren Walker, a graduate student in CCC Advisor Alison Gopnik’s developmental psychology lab at the University of California, Berkeley, recently published research in the journal Psychological Science which she conducted at the Center for Childhood Creativity’s Creative Thinking Research Lab. Her work with 18-30 month olds in our lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum explores how children and adults learn about the causal world in the absence of new observations – a phenomenon they call “learning by thinking”.

This research suggests these young children were able to abstract the concepts “same” and “different” from very limited evidence. In fact, as researchers become more subtle in their experiments, we find out children are able to understand abstractions at younger and younger ages. In other words – kids know more than we think they do.

Read more about this ground-breaking research:


The CCC has established an onsite-testing lab – The Creative Thinking Research Lab – at the Bay Area Discovery Museum to benefit researchers studying the cognitive components of creativity and advancing our knowledge of child development by providing a unique learning environment with many young visitors and context that promotes creative thinking, imagination, and discovery. For more information on conducting studies at the testing lab, look at our Research Guide.