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.

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.

How to Help Your Child Build Executive Function

executive functionThe development of executive function (EF) has recently received substantial attention from researchers and the popular press because of the links between EF and young children’s school readiness and achievement and social understanding.

A new and growing body of research explores the relation between parental scaffolding of children’s play in everyday activities and children’s executive function. Successful scaffolding is a delicate balance between providing hints and not giving children the answer or solution, and may require heavy involvement by the parent at times, and at other times backing away and observing.

Susan Landry and her colleagues investigated the role of language input in the form of maternal scaffolding at ages 3 and 4 years, a time when children are rapidly learning language, to children’s EF at age 6. The researchers found that young children had increased verbal ability and better executive function skills when their mothers provided more sensitive scaffolding of their children’s play.

Ways to foster executive function skills: 

Play games with your children that foster planning, self-control, and sustained attention. For the younger ages, Simon Says and Red Light Green Light are great games that encourage children to exercise self-control by NOT touching your toes or running fast. For older children, classic games like checkers, chess, and Monopoly require sustained attention, planning, and memory skills.

Engage in fun activities with your children that involve planning skills. For example, cooking is a great family activity, and your child can help with planning what to cook, creating a shopping list, and executing each step of the recipe. When you are working on a task or project that requires several steps and planning ahead (e.g., baking cookies), let your child participate as much as possible and talk through the steps you are taking (“I’m turning on the oven now so it is ready when w e have made the cookie dough.”) so children start to understand your reasoning and logic.

scaffolding

An except from Shared Discoveries: Positive parent-child relationships and child development, written by Center for Childhood Creativity Associate Director of Research Helen Hadani.


Landry, S. H., Miller-Loncar, C. L., Smith, K, E., & Swank, P. R. (2002). The role of early parenting in children’s development of executive processes. Developmental Neuropsychology, 21(1), 15–41. 

 

Language and Alien Toys – Improving Learning

Are children able to learn the words of any community to the same extent? This is an interesting question, with considerable implications for education.

Recently, Annette Henderson of the University of Auckland and her colleagues tested two groups of four-year-old children. One group of children was told that the toys in the situation were purchased nearby and used by children “around here.” Another group of children was told that the toys were bought in Japan and were meant for use by Japanese children. Children were also told the names of these toys.

The researchers found that, afterwards, children were best able to remember the names of the toys when they thought that the toys were associated with their community. It is possible that children may have been more interested in learning the words that would be used in their daily lives.

Henderson’s study is not the only one to show that children may be particularly attuned to learning the words of their community. Related studies at Stanford University carried out by Alison Master and her colleagues have found that membership in a group promotes children’s learning.

In this study, Master told one group of children that they were in a group that “looks at alien toys and remembers their names.” Another group of children were told that they were the type of child who “looks at alien toys and remember their names.” The results showed that children who thought they were a part of a group who remembered the names more than the children who did not feel they were a part of a group.

Together, Henderson’s and Master’s studies suggest that children are strongly influenced by the social environment when they attempt to learn new words.  When words appear to be relevant to the group, children are better able to learn. It is possible that teachers may be able use these studies to create classroom dynamics that may facilitate learning.


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.

Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Child How to Play

StuartBrown_quote Decades of research have explored the multi-faceted benefits of play for children of all ages. Young children start to play with each other in early toddlerhood, and peers and parents are important to the development of different types of play including cooperative play, pretense and physical play.

A recent study by Elizabeth Bonawitz and her colleagues provides experimental evidence to support the benefits of play and exploration in a teaching environment. The researchers found that children in the Pedagogical condition played with the toy for significantly less time and performed fewer kinds of different actions on the toy than children in the Naïve condition. That is, direct instruction made the children less curious and less likely to discover new information. These findings provide important insights for teachers and parents on how to balance direct instruction and exploration in the context of play.

Ways to support children’s learning through play:

Allow children to explore a new toy and show you how it works. Resist the urge to demonstrate how the toy works: Let them take the driver’s seat when they interact with a new toy. Encourage them to figure out the different functions of the toy by asking questions like, “I wonder what this does?”

Encourage pretend play in all ages, especially toddlers and preschoolers when children naturally want to engage in fantasy play and create imaginative worlds. Think big and small—create a play space in a big empty box or design a tiny world in a shoebox. Provide materials to create with, space to get messy, and time to explore and discover. Remember that play is not only good for kids, but for adults too, so take every opportunity to join the tea party or sail away on a pirate ship.

Double-edged_sword_of_pedagogy

An except from Shared Discoveries: Positive parent-child relationships and child development, written by Center for Childhood Creativity Associate Director of Research Helen Hadani.


Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N. D., Spelke, E., & Schulz, L. (2011). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition, 120(3), 322-330.

Babies: Not Just Monkey See Monkey Do

We know young children often imitate the behavior of others. Current research shows that children’s cognitive capacities enable them to be highly selective with their imitative behaviors.

In a groundbreaking study published in Nature, Gyorgy Gergely of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and his colleagues found that younger – as young as 14 months of age – will only imitate if they think imitation is “rational.”

In the study, half of the infants saw a woman whose hands were occupied using her head to turn on a switch. The other half of the infants saw the same woman turning on the switch with her head when her hands were unoccupied.

The results showed that the vast majority of the infants who saw her when her hands were occupied did not copy her odd behavior. Instead of using their heads, they used their hands to flip the switch. It is possible that they inferred that, were her hands not occupied, she would have used them. Instead of blindly imitating her, they inferred what she would have wanted to do under optimal conditions, and proceeded to do it.

By contrast, the vast majority of the infants who saw her use her head even though her hands were unoccupied actually imitated her odd action. Perhaps they inferred that there was a “reason” why she would use her head when her hands were free.

This study demonstrates infants’ powerful ability to learn the rational structure of their world. They are not completely faithful imitators – but rather agile, young humans who, as the researchers note, engage in a “selective, inferential process that involves evaluation of the rationality of the means in relation to the constraints of the situation.”


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.

Early Childhood Creativity – What Are the Answers?

Our Associate Director for Programming Development, Erica Fortescue discuss how teachers can translate creativity into early childhood practice with Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Driving Question:  How can teachers translate a belief in creativity into sound practice?

Each year hundreds of preschool and K-5 teachers come to the Bay Area Discovery Museum to participate in our Center for Childhood Creativity’s immersive professional development program, Building Blocks of Creative Thinking. Almost all of the teachers we work with share a general belief that creativity is an essential skill, yet they arrive full of questions about how to translate that interest into classroom practice. Let me share some of their favorite questions and our answers.

How can creativity be defined in terms of teachable skills in early childhood and elementary classrooms?

Creativity isn’t just found in the arts, but across academic disciplines. It lies at the heart of deeper learning and is a key component in later success throughout life. One of our preferred definitions of creativity is the capacity for original thought, new connections, adaptive reasoning and inventive solutions.

If I want to increase the creative skills in my students, how can I start?

I encourage teachers to begin by reflecting on the current state of learning in their classrooms, guided by these crucial questions:

  • Do my students have sufficient time for play?
  • How can  I shift my question style away from closed-ended questions for which there is only one right answer, toward a question style with open-ended questions with multiple correct answers?
  • How does  my curriculum include project-based learning experiences in which students practice thinking like a designer, uncovering inventive solutions, and prototyping answers for the problem?
  • How can  my classroom an environment support students taking intellectual risks and developing habits of persistence and creative confidence in the face of setbacks?
Why is play so important to creativity?

There is a large body of work by Sandra Russ and her colleagues indicating that the quality of fantasy and imagination in early grade school years correlates with divergent thinking ability in high school—an effect that spans over 10 years. Think about how active a young children’s brain becomes, how full of possibility it is during fantasy play. Yet, for many children, time devoted to open-ended play drops precipitously upon entering grade school. K-3 teachers and administrators often feel compelled to remove opportunities for extended imaginary play during class time, and also assign homework that limits children’s time for imaginary play once classroom time is over. Educators are often overjoyed to learn that the research on brain development of children aged 0-10 sends a consistent message to let them play!

Why do open-ended questions promote creative thinking?

Consider the profound difference between testing for understand of arithmetic by asking a closed-ended question such as “What does 4+4= ?” versus asking a child “What numbers can you add together to make 8?” Answering both questions requires students to use math facts. However, the first question has only one right answer. The second question, an open-ended one, has infinite answers. The magic of open-ended questions is that they allow students to elaborate on ideas, play around with concepts and go deeper if they have already mastered the topic. Children answering open-ended questions build complex neural networks. As you review your lesson plan for tomorrow, look at your questions.

What do prototyping, persistence and resilience have to do with creativity?

At age 7, my son was charged with designing a functional catapult with a design partner. He declared with glee “I’m an inventor. All inventors make mistakes. I’m prototyping. If it doesn’t work then I will make changes and try it again.” The integration of design thinking into elementary classrooms through project-based learning experiences helps students to develop creative habits, often with the added benefit of skill development in engineering and science. The Nueva School’s framework for design thinking in the classroom is an excellent visual guide for teachers, The D School at Stanford offers a wealth of resources, as does the new book Creative Confidence by IDEO co-founders David and Tom Kelley.

The process of creative thinking—bridging from idea generation through adaptive reasoning toward inventive solutions—requires students who persist in the face of setbacks. As a teacher, ask yourself, “How can I de-catastrophize failure in my classroom and normalize making mistakes?” One first grade teacher I know calls attention to her “mistake of the day” and her students love helping her find her mistakes. Creative solutions are developed by students who can view mistakes as an opportunity for learning. There is a rich and growing body of research (see Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, and Angela Duckworth, Ph.D.) that sheds light on the many benefits of seeding academic tenacity in our youngest students.

For more information on creative thinking, play, and resilience, please see the bookshelf and articles posted on the Center for Childhood Creativity website.

This article originally appeared at Partnership for 21st Century Skills.


Erica Fortescue is the Associate Director for Program Development at the Center for Childhood Creativity, a research and teacher training institute of the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, CA. She is a longtime educator with more than 15 years of experience as a K-12 classroom teacher, college access program director and inquiry-based science curriculum designer.