My science experiment report

Title: Do Delayed Children from Impoverished Environments Have a Concept of Conservation?

Date: April 8, 2013

Experimenter: E. Curry

Purpose: To determine if an older adopted child is missing key mental concepts, using the concept of conservation as an example.

Introduction: In my parenting of older adopted children, it seems as though, because of their deprived backgrounds, they have irregular mental development. While in some ways they are capable of age-appropriate work, I believe that there are a great many deficits that children who grow up in families do not have. Some of these deficits are basic, but are due to living in an environment that did allow their brains to advance as they are designed. When these children are placed in families, we assume that they progressed as other children, just without knowledge of our language or other more obvious things. Thus we expect them to catch up quickly and are frustrated they do not. But what has happened is that the necessary mental framework that must be in place before it can be built on isn't there. This doesn't mean that it cannot be built, but in order for it to be built, we must provide the appropriate supports.

One of these basic concepts is that of conservation. It is a classic experiment with preschoolers. If you fill two identical glasses with equal amounts of water, the preschooler will understand that you have the same amount of water... that the glasses are equal. Yet, if the adult pours one of the glasses into a differently shaped container which changes the height of the water, the child will then say that the glass containing the higher level of water has more. Even if they just saw the same amount of water as equal in the other glass. The preschooler has yet to develop a sense of conservation. That is, that the amount of water is the same regardless of how it appears. At some point, often by the age of 6 or 7, the idea of conservation has developed.

Materials: Cuisenaire rods, two glasses of water of identical size and amounts, and a third, differently shaped glass.

Procedure: I wanted to test whether H. had yet developed the idea of conservation. In doing the test, it was clear that a language barrier could compromise the results. Since we had been working on the idea of 'more' and 'less' in her math book using Cuisenaire rods, I first clarified the concepts of 'more' and 'less' so that I was sure she understood what they meant. I took a pile of rods, all of the same color, and we practiced naming the idea. I would give her a pile and myself a pile and ask her which person had more. She was correct every time. When I made two equal piles, she started to answer twice, paused, and announced, "No has more. They are the same." I felt sure the understood when I asked her who had more.

I then showed her the to identical glasses with equal amounts of water and gave her one. I then asked her who had more water, playing the exact game with the glasses as we had with the rods. She looked and told me they were the same. No one had more. I then had her watch me pour my glass into a different glass which caused the water level of my glass to be lower than hers. I asked her again who had more. Without missing a beat, she pointed to her own glass (which had a higher level) and told me that she had more.

TM was very interested in what we were doing, so I used him as a control. I filled the identical glasses up again and asked him who had more. He agreed that they were the same (though he would have been happier if I had measured it out equally on a scale). I then filled the different glass up and asked him who had more. He was about to answer, when he stopped, looked at me somewhat incredulously and said, "The other glass is wider... it's going to look different."

Conclusions: TM and H. are two weeks apart in age. TM clearly showed the ability to grasp the concept of conservation while H. demonstrated a conception usually held by someone at a much younger age. I do not think this is a result of mental impairment so much as lack of mental opportunity. Children build these mental concepts as they play and experiment with the world around them. A child must spend many hours pouring water from one container to another before they can make conclusions about what does and does not change as they pour. If a child is not given this opportunity to explore their world and figure out how it works, these new conclusions do not develop. But since recent shows that the brain is plastic and that it is continually growing and pruning neurons throughout one's entire life, I don't believe that just because appropriate mental scaffolding did not occur at the usual time that it cannot occur later.

This supports my hypothesis that what older children from emotionally and physically impoverished environments need most is a chance to play at the level when impoverishment began. For H., this means that this summer I will be digging out my copy of Sandbox Scientist and H., K., G.. and L. will be doing a lot of hands-on exploring, including much water play. I intend to repeat the experiment every six months and chart the results.


Fascinating! I refer to these gaps as "holes" when they show up in my daughter. I really ought to get some kind of developmental check list and start working through stages chronologically with her. Thanks for the reminder.
Amy said…
I did this experiment in our family and the results are rather sad for me. My 15 year old does not grasp conservation yet. I knew my one nine year old would not but the fact that my 15 year old doesn't either is hard. We plan on him being a lifer with us and this experiment is another confirmation of what we really already know about his development.

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