Mental time travel

Professor Cristina Atance

When Cristina Atance began her PhD in Developmental Psychology, she noticed there was a lot of research on memory in children, but very little on future thinking.

“I wanted to know when kids start this kind of future ‘mental time travel’ — not necessarily imagining they want to be a ballerina or a firefighter when they grow up,” she says. “But if they’re going to the park, do they think about bringing water or toys?”

Atance is a professor of psychology and director of the University of Ottawa’s Childhood Cognition and Learning Laboratory. The lab explores different aspects of children’s thinking and conducts studies with 3- to 5-year-olds. It includes a reception room, complete with toys and colourful decorations, and two small study rooms, each furnished with just a child-sized table and chairs to avoid distractions.

Atance chose to focus on this age group because that is when most children develop the cognitive abilities related to future thinking. But there was a problem.

“Children that age usually can’t understand terms we adults take for granted, such as next week or next year,” she explains. “It’s only around age 4 or 5 that they even begin to get concepts such as tomorrow. We wanted to find ways of tapping into kids’ understanding of the future without using that terminology.”

So Atance took an unconventional approach. She adapted a study from the University of Cambridge originally developed to test scrub jays, a species of bird shown to have great planning and memory skills.

“They presented the scrub jays with two alternating compartments for six consecutive mornings — one with food, or ‘breakfast,’ and one without,” she says. “When the jays were given the opportunity to store food on the evening of the sixth day, they cached more food in the compartment that otherwise didn’t have any, as a kind of preparation for the future.”

In Atance’s study, preschoolers were similarly presented with the two rooms in which they would be spending time. One room had lots of toys, the other had none. The children were then given a box full of toys and were told that they would be coming back later. When asked where they should put the toys, the 3-year-olds divided the toys randomly, while the 5-year-olds consistently put the toys in the room where there weren’t any.

The researcher is also looking into the area of saving and how it relates to children’s understanding of the future. In this case, 3- to 5-year-olds are presented with a marble run in each of two rooms. The marble run in the first room is very short; the second one is longer and a lot more fun. The children are given five marbles to use, starting with the short run. The question is, will they save the marbles for the large run in the second room?

Atance found that the kids were not very good at saving their marbles for the longer run, although the 5-year-olds were certainly better at it than the younger children. The professor decided to take the study one step further.

“We wanted to see if there might be ways to improve kids’ saving,” she explains. “One way was by repeating the exercise to see if they could learn from experience, and that did improve their saving. We also discovered that simply making a suggestion about saving their marbles had a very strong effect.”

The work Atance is most excited about right now is forecasting, something that humans are not very good at. She is interested in the “end-of-history illusion” popularized by Daniel Gilbert, psychology professor at Harvard University and author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness. “Although we can recognize that we’ve changed in the past, we’re not very good at predicting changes in our future preferences,” she says. “Getting a tattoo — which we later regret — is a perfect example.”

Atance and her team asked preschoolers whether they will prefer Kool-Aid or coffee when they grow up. While all of the children recognized that adults prefer coffee, the 3- to 4-year-olds couldn’t predict they would someday favour coffee. However, by age 5, most could.

“Our studies show that so much is changing between ages 3 and 5 in children. I’m not convinced that parents and teachers are aware of these big differences in development, and how that might affect things like blended junior kindergarten/senior kindergarten classes.”

As the mother of boys aged 2 and 5, she sees these differences firsthand. Sometimes she records and shows footage of them to her students to demonstrate these developmental leaps.

An important next step for Atance is to take what she and her team are learning about future thinking and related abilities, such as saving, to help early childhood educators and parents better understand and interpret young children’s behaviour.


by Leah Geller

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