What on Earth...?

Children's drawings of the Earth as flat, or hollow with people inside, have led some psychologists to believe children develop naive, but coherent, mental models of what the planet is like based on their own observations. Such accounts predict that teaching science to children will be difficult because these entrenched beliefs must be overcome first.

But there are problems with interpreting children's drawings. They might draw a flat Earth because it's easier, for example. So Gavin Nobes and colleagues at the University of East London used a different technique. They asked 62 children, aged from 5 to 10, to put 16 cartoon-style pictures of the Earth in order of how much they looked like the Earth. The pictures varied systematically along three dimensions - the Earth's shape, the location of people, and the location of the sky.

All the children consistently ranked the spherical depiction of the Earth as most realistic. Two thirds of the 7 to 10 year-olds also showed a clear preference for pictures showing people and the sky all around the Earth. The 5 to 6 year-olds showed no consistent preference for the location of the sky and/or people. None of the children ranked the pictures in a way consistent with an alternative, naive mental model of the Earth (as flat, with people and the sky only on top, for example).

"These findings indicate that even young children have some knowledge of the scientific view of the Earth", the authors concluded, adding: "The only theory that children acquire is the scientific theory that culture communicates, presumably through linguistic and visual means by school, parents and the media".

Nobes, G., Martin, A.E. & Panagiotaki, G. (2005). The development of scientific knowledge of the Earth. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 47-66
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