Have you ever noticed that children love to flip light switches and press elevator buttons? Why do they love these little actions? Because these little actions make something happen! Whether it’s watching the light turn on when they flip the switch or seeing the elevator button light up, children love to see the effect of their actions on the world.
Children are scientists and enjoy exploring new things! By flipping the light switch, they are figuring out what causes the light to turn on. They are also discovering if the light consistently turns on when they flip the switch. When pressing the elevator call button, a child might wonder, “will the elevator arrive every time I press this button?” This is one way they learn about cause-and-effect relationships. Through this exploration, children begin to understand the difference between causal events and non-causal events. A causal relationship is when one thing causes an event to occur, like flipping the light switch to turn on the light. A non-causal relationship is when an event happens to occur at the same time as something else, but there is no causal connection. For example, if the TV turned on at the same time as you flipped a light switch, those two events might seem to go together, but in fact the TV just happened to turn on at the same time as you flipped the light switch. There is no causal connection: If you were to flip the light switch again, the TV would most likely not turn on this time.
How do children learn about causes and effects?
As we know, one way children learn is through observing and imitating others. The same is true for learning about causes and effects. Children learn about cause-and-effect relationships everyday by observing the behaviors of others. For example, infants and children observe that when an adult presses a button on the remote, the TV turns on. When the child imitates the adult, they learn that not all of the buttons turn the TV on. They might experiment on the remote to figure out which button turns the TV on, and which do not.
Children also make their own predictions and perform their own experiments to explore causes and effects. Infants as young as 6-months-old are able to identify causal events from non-causal events. Just like scientists, children create experiments to test their ideas of how the world works.
Why is learning about cause and effect so important?
Developing an understanding of cause and effect is an important part of children’s cognitive development. Children start to understand how events in the world are related and connected to each other. It also helps children to think about what will happen in the future and to make predictions. Learning about cause and effect also supports children in taking control of their environment and building their independence.
As adults, we can support children’s developing understanding of cause-and-effect. You can provide and label examples in everyday situations. Next time your infant knocks over their milk cup, you can say, “Look at the spilled milk on the floor! Knocking your milk cup off the table caused your milk to spill.” You may also ask your child what they think will happen when you blow on their hot food at dinnertime. With older children, ask them to identify causes and effects they notice! By making it fun, you and your child can learn together about the world around you.
For more information, check out the latest I-LABS Outreach and Education module: Learning to Make Things Happen: How Children Learn Cause-and-Effect