How Watching Magic Tricks Can Help Babies Learn About Physics

By on September 23, 2016

While the subtle skill of a magic show would seem to be lost on an infant, magic tricks are not above their heads — and apparently neither are basic physics. A new study[1] from Johns Hopkins University and recently published in the “Science” academic journal, discovered that magic displays can be a unique way of engaging with even the youngest of children.

When performing seemingly impossible acts in front of a subject pool of 11 month old infants, the children not only noticed that the acts defied reality, but the experience also ignited their curiosity. The findings indicate both that infants have an almost inherent way of understanding complex “universal truths” of physics and that violating these truths opens up new pathways of learning.

To perform the study, 110 children were selected and brought to a research lab in Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Each child was seated in front of a black-shrouded box that looked almost like a puppet performance stage. Two tricks were performed inside the box:
● A colorful ball was rolled down a ramp towards two solid-looking walls, which were partially concealed by a covering. When the ball reached the first wall, it went behind the covering but did not appear to knock the wall down. After the covering was removed, the baby could see that the ball was actually in between the two walls without knocking or moving either one.
● A plastic toy train was attached to a track hidden in the black background of the performance box. The train was pushed off a platform, but appeared to float since it was guided by the hidden track.

To the surprise of the researchers, the infants all appeared to take great interest in the magic displays compared to their usually easily-distracted demeanors. Also, when the children were presented with a choice of toys, they were more likely to choose the toys they saw in the magic show.

Many subjects even appeared to be “experimenting” with the toys to try and explain the phenomenon they just saw. For instance, many children banged the ball against the table to test if it was solid. Others dropped the toy train, as if to see if it would float.

These astonishing results open up new lines of thought in how children learn. Concepts like solidity and gravity appear to be second nature, and children who have these concepts challenged are more likely to show curiosity and a desire to see what could have caused the unusual event.

For parents seeking out new ways to engage children and spark interest in the world around them, David Copperfield just could soon become as important as Mozart and Einstein in enriching their desire to learn.


[1] Science, “Observing the unexpected enhances infants’ learning and exploration,” Aimee E. Stahl, Lisa Feigenson, April 2015

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