"What Shapes the Space of Possibilities that Children Consider?"
The ability to go beyond perceptual experience to form abstract connections between objects and events is central to human cognition. Not only does it underlie the acquisition of domain-specific content—supporting concepts like opposites, waves, and themes—it is also critical for domain-general skills, like knowledge transfer and creativity. Despite this, it has long been assumed that abstract thought develops slowly and linearly, in a bottom-up, emergent process. I will review empirical and theoretical work that challenges this prevailing view. Specifically, I will argue that learners have access to both concrete and abstract concepts from very early on, and that input from the learning environment imposes critical constraints on the possibilities that they privilege and apply. I will review empirical support for this proposal that demonstrates the robustness of children’s early competence in abstract reasoning. Next, I will provide evidence that specific features of both the “global” and “local” learning context play a causal role in shaping the space of possibilities that children consider. As part of this discussion, I will review ongoing work identifying cross-cultural differences in relational and object bias, impacting the emergence and trajectory of abstract reasoning. Finally, I will briefly highlight several new lines of work that consider how learners navigate multiple possibilities when they are confronted with uncertainty.