Forces and Motion: How Young Children Understand Causal Events


  • This work was supported by NICHD Grant 5R01HD050199 and by NSF Grant BCS-0642529 to the second and third authors. We thank everyone at the Temple University Infant Lab and in the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (particularly the RISC group at Temple University) for their invaluable contributions to this project. We also thank Nora Newcombe for helpful suggestions on many phases of this project. Special thanks to Kelly Fisher, Sarah Roseberry, Andrea Frick, Wendy Shallcross, Yannos Misitzis, Russell Richie, Katrina Ferrara, Carolyn Winslow, and Rhea Miles for their help in stimulus design, data collection, and coding. We are grateful to the children and parents who participated in the study.


How do children evaluate complex causal events? This study investigates preschoolers' representation of force dynamics in causal scenes, asking whether (a) children understand how single and dual forces impact an object's movement and (b) this understanding varies across cause types (Cause, Enable, Prevent). Three-and-a half- to 5.5-year-olds (n = 60) played a board game in which they were asked to predict the endpoint of a ball being acted upon by one or two forces. Children mostly understood the interactions of forces underlying each type of cause; only 5.5-year-olds could integrate two contradictory forces. Children perceive force interactions underlying causal events, but some concepts might not be fully understood until later in childhood. This study provides a new way of thinking about causal relations.