It is clear from the studies thus far examined (plus a few more) that the ability to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects develops much earlier than Piaget imagined. Second, while it is unclear from this study if the rules of grammar inform the child's sense of animacy or vice versa, we find that children significantly tend to attribute animate characteristics to a sentence's first noun and inanimate qualities to the second. In either case, clearly children are able to make early deductions about the characteristics of animate objects vs. inanimate ones. Perhaps they were able to draw conclusions about the most logical configuration about the sentence based on their preexisting knowledge of animacy, or perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps the rules of grammar that have already been taught informed children's sense of animacy. Whichever the reality, the development of an understanding of the differences between animate and inanimate objects clearly occurs at a very young age.
Other studies on the subject only confirm this position with other pieces of the overall puzzle of development. Another linguistic examination found that a child's ability to determine whether or not a sentence was anomalous is based on preexisting notions about animacy (Schwartz, 1980). In other words, a child's ability to tell if a sentence was constructed anomalously based on animacy characteristics was based on presupposition the child had regarding animacy. A young child, thus, who had not yet figured out that rocks don't move on their own might judge this sentence -- "The rock thought long and hard before deciding to roll down the hill" -- to be perfectly all right. An adult, on the other hand, would quickly point out the anomalous nature of this sentence because of the adult's more mature sense of animate vs. inanimate knowledge.
Schwartz (1980) found that a child's ability to judge a sentence anomalous was based on the preexisting knowledge of animacy. Unfortunately, since this study was designed to examine grammar development, its applicability to the question at hand is only tangential. It does however suggest that the development of knowledge of animate and inanimate differences precedes grammatical development, a finding that shapes our understanding of the previous study's findings (Dewart, 1979). That study found that children as young as five were able to determine animacy based on sentence structure, but was unclear about whether or not a knowledge of animacy preceded a knowledge of grammar. Schwartz (1980) seems to suggest that knowledge of animacy must come first. That would mean that development of knowledge of the difference between animate and inanimate objects must occur as young as age three or four, much younger than previously thought.
Of course, there are other means to test the development of this ability in children that cover topics other than grammar and linguistics. Greif and his fellow researchers (2006) recently tested thirty-two preschool age children, encouraging them to ask questions about the characteristics of images of animals and artifacts that were shown to them. The research methodology was simple: show children images of either animals or objects and then draw conclusions about their development based on the kind of questions the children employed to find out more about the images. Importantly, the questions that the children framed were never categorically inappropriate: no child asked what kind of babies a volcano had, or what was the favorite lunch of a street sign.
Instead, the children were more likely to ask questions that probed the function of the artifacts and the biological natures of the animals. The inevitably conclusion that the researchers came to was that the children at that age were already classifying artifacts based on their intended function, while they categorized animals by biological characteristics (Greif et al., 2006). This means, of course, that by the time that the children were investigated by the researchers, they already had a basic knowledge of the difference between animate and inanimate objects. If they did not already have in their minds a basic picture of what constituted the differences between these two, then they would have found it impossible -- or at least difficult -- to ask appropriately framed questions about the images the researchers showed them. The fact that the children had no difficulty in doing so means that they had already developed knowledge of the difference between animate and inanimate objects.
In fact, the most consistent aspect of these studies is that they all indicate that knowledge of animacy emerges much earlier than Piaget believed that it did. Tunmer (1985), in an examination of social vs. nonsocial cognition, concluded that children between the ages of four and seven were able to differentiate between the two. Social cognition involves the actions of sentient, thinking beings. It is, in effect, psychology. Nonsocial cognition, on the other hand, is a product of physical events -- the realm of inanimate matter. While Tunmer argued that the ability to differentiate between social and nonsocial cognition occurred later than the ability to draw a line between animate and inanimate objects, his subjects still conform to the early development of this capacity.
Massey and Gelman (1988) also tested whether or not preschool-age children were capable of understanding the difference between animate and inanimate objects based on the ability of the former to self-initiate actions. The findings demonstrate that four-year-old were reliably accurate about which type of object could self-initiate action in a number of categories. Three-year-olds scored significantly above chance in all but one of the categories. This is an important final study to consider on the question of the development of animate and inanimate knowledge. Clearly, this study illustrates that this kind of knowledge is not innate or inborn, somehow coded into indivdual genes. If that were the case, then there shouldn't have been as significant a difference in the ability of the children to classifying objects based on the objects' ability to self-initiate action. If the aforementioned knowledge was built-in, it should be as robust in three-year-olds as it is in four-year-olds. In fact, we should see no discernable development of the ability to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects during childhood development.
This position is, of course, incorrect. Clearly, Massey and Gelman (1988) show that there is a quantifiable improvement in animacy conceptions as children age. The other studies presented above all conclude that this knowledge develops at a remarkably young age; however, none suggests that two-year-olds or infants have the ability to make this kind of distinction. The ability to do so is informed by environmental inputs and training -- both social and nonsocial training. It is not of issue that these children do not possess a genetic understanding of these concepts; what is incredibly intriguing and important is that not only is the process developmental but that it occurs at a fantastically rapid pace during early childhood.
Clearly, Piaget's early conclusions that the development of conceptions of animate and inanimate distinctions only develops by age eleven or twelve are entirely incorrect. Whatever the failings of Piaget's original studies, it is incredibly evident that the development of this type of knowledge about the world occurs at a significantly earlier phase of development than previously believed. The body of scholarly consensus is clear: by age five children have developed a clear understanding of the nature of animate and inanimate objects. Some studies point to the possibility that the development can occur earlier. There is no significant indication that children are plagued by a pervasive misapplication of animate characteristics onto inanimate objects until they reach adolescence. Whatever Piaget's contributions to developmental studies, his conclusions on animacy must be abandoned in favor of the weight of academic discourse on the subject.
Dewart, M.H. (1979). Children's hypotheses about the animacy of actor and object nouns. British Journal of Psychology, 70(4), pp. 525-530.
Dolgin, K., & Behrend, D. (1984). Children's knowledge about animates and inanimates. Child Development, 55(4), pp. 1646-1650.
Greif, M.L., Nelson, D.G.K., Keil, F.C., and Gutierrez, F. (2006). What do children want to know about animals and artifacts? Psychological Science, 17(6), pp. 455-459.
Inagaki, K. & Hatano, G. (2006). Young children's conception of the biological world. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), pp. 177-181.
Inagaki, K., & Hatano, G. (1996). Young children's recognition of commonalities between animals and plants. Child Development, 67(6), pp. 2823-2840.
Massey, C., & Gelman, R. (1988). Preschooler's ability to decide whether a photographed unfamiliar object can move itself. Developmental Psychology, 24(3), pp. 307-317.
Schwartz, R.G. (1980). Presuppositions and children's metalinguistic judgments: Concepts of life and the awareness of animacy restrictions. Child Development, 51(2), pp. 364-371.
Stone, C.L. (1930). The child's conception of the world. Journal of Abnormal…