If you can't see it, feel it, or taste it, how can you learn about it?
HGSE Professor Paul Harris
Children make observations using their senses all the time. But conversation with others can be a source of information about invisible and microscopic things, like oxygen and germs, and about beings like the Tooth Fairy and mermaids that are part of their culture. This feature highlights work by HGSE professor Paul Harris and his colleagues examining how children learn about these non-observables entities based on how other people talk about them.
Here's some food for thought. If children only learned by observing what's around them, how could they learn about "invisible" things, like germs, mermaids, and the Tooth Fairy? Clearly, children pick up on what other people talk about, even when the thing talked about is invisible. If children didn't learn from others' words, they would be oblivious about the existence of germs, mermaids, and other entities promoted by their culture.
Dr. Paul Harris and his colleagues interviewed young children to find out how they think about these invisible entities and distinguish them from fictional ones. They found that 5-6 year-olds had little problem claiming that some of these exist, especially scientific entities like germs and oxygen. Similarly, though to a lesser extent, they claimed to believe in beings that are typically endorsed as real by their families, including the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. In contrast, children confidently denied the existence of some fictional beings, such as mermaids and witches—beings that adults never refer to as real.
Art by Eileen Kenneally
It could be that the way people talk about these entities explains why children distinguish them in this way. Adults tend to talk about germs and the Tooth Fairy in terms of the observable events they cause to happen in the world, like "Germs make you sick," and "The Tooth Fairy took your tooth." They also tend to talk about these entities in ways that assume their existence, as by saying "That has germs on it," and "Look under your pillow to see if the Tooth Fairy came." Fictional beings are not spoken of like this, since they are usually brought up only in the context of make-believe stories and movies. Hearing about what entities do in the real world might help explain why children believe in some types of invisible beings and not others.
As children get older, their beliefs about invisible entities shift. But at any age, dialogue with educators, parents, peers, and others who interact with children provide a rich source of information about the unseen world.
Harris, P.L., Pasquini, E.S., Duke, S., Asscher, J.J., & Pons, F. (2006). Germs and angels: The role of testimony in young children's ontology. Developmental Science, 9(1), 76–96.