Almost Smart Research Project:
Children's Conception of Living versus Nonliving
The Questions
Video and student responses
Relevant research

The question we investigated:
How do children distinguish between living and nonliving things?

Our interview questions:

1.Can you tell if something is Living or Non-living?
A. If yes, how?
B. If no, can you tell if something is alive? Are we alive? What is not alive?

2. How do we tell the difference between alive and not alive?

3. Can you give me 5 examples of living things? (student writes with pencil and paper)

4. Can you give 5 examples of non-living things? (student writes with pencil and paper)

5. Classify pictures of living and non-living things.

6. Using pictures from above activity ask, why do you think (correct response/ incorrect response) is alive or not alive?

7. Challenge students’ misconceptions with a question. Ex: If the student said that living things move ask if a moving car is alive.

8. Is there anything that all living things need or require? Explain

9. Where do living things come from?

10. Do living things come from a different place than non-living things?

Summary of our findings:

The focus of the research was to determine a child’s perception of the difference between living and non-living things. We wanted to determine what young children use as their criteria to characterize living things. In addition, the research project included questions to determine where living things come from and if children can distinguish between objects and pictures of living and non-living things. One of the particular curiosities of the researchers was to see if these children could determine if cartoon characters are living or non-living things.

The research was conducted using students from ages five to eleven years old. We found that there were a variety of responses to the research questions, most likely due to the variety in ages of the children. Most of the children had similar ideas in regards to the main question of living versus non-living things.

There were some common ideas among these children, particularly regarding the characteristics of a living thing. All of the children described how they know something as living by the objects ability to move or grow. Only the eleven year old child was able to further describe a living thing as being made of cells.

One of the other similarities discovered in the research, was the difficulty the children had in describing from where non-living things come. Typical answers to this question included: “they come from a factory” or “they are made by living things”. There was no difficulty, however, for all of the children when determining the origin of living things as coming from other living things.

When presented with a picture of a famous cartoon character, all students except the five year old were able to categorize the cartoon as a non-living thing. Some of the students, however, were very hesitant with this item, and it was apparent that there was some difficulty in reconciling the cartoon as living or non-living.

In summary, children used two main criteria in categorizing items as living or non-living things: 1)living things move and 2)living things grow. Most children distinguished plants and animals as living, and most children distinguished cartoons as non-living. It was also apparent from the research, that there is a fair amount of uncertainty and confusion for these children when faced with the task of explaining from where non-living things come.

See the video: (Requires Quicktime)

Living and Non-Living Video

Student lists of living and nonliving things:


Relevant Research by others:

Children use a variety of criteria to distinguish living things from non-living things. The most prevalent seems to be movement and activity. Thus, young children will often classify plants as nonliving or toy cars as living. As children get older, their concept of what is living versus what is nonliving evolves. For example, older children may classify something which can move on its own as living, while something which moves only when it is somehow started in motion by external means is nonliving. Other criteria for being alive include breathing, reproduction, and death. Structural criteria such as cells and DNA are rarely mentioned.

Specific sources found:

Cognitive development in early childhood. Link.  Discusses Piaget's ideas of the four stages in cognitive development of living vs. nonling under the heading Animism.

The Age of Intelligent Machines: Growing Up in the Age of Intelligent Machines: Reconstructions of the Psychological and Reconsiderations of the Human


Also discusses some of Piaget's ideas about the life concept development. Explores the connection of the idea of consciousness to both living things and computers. Do children think of computers as a type of artificial life?

ScienceNetLinks: The Living Environment-Research.


Short summary on research into the living/non living concept from the Project 2061 web site, a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Aboriginal Children's Conceptions and Alternative Conceptions of Plants. Link. Investigates Taiwanese aborigial childrens' conceptions of plants, including the distinction between plants and nonliving things. The interesting thing about this study was how similar the methodology was to the way we conducted our group's reseach. For example, children were asked to "name five plants," and flashcards with picures of a mushroom and a rock were used, the same items we asked children to classify as living or nonliving. Almost Smart members must be born researchers at heart.
Abstract from ERIC database search

Author(s): Inagaki, Kayoko ; Hatano, Giyoo
Title: Young Children's Recognition of Commonalities between Animals and Plants.
Source: Child Development v67 n6 p2823-40 Dec 1996
Standard No: ISSN: 0009-3920
Clearinghouse: PS526561
Language: English
Abstract: Results from several experiments indicated that by age 5, children distinguished animals and plants from nonliving things in terms of growth; many 5-year olds attributed growth, intake
of food and water, and illness to both animals and plants; and 5-year olds responded affirmatively when asked whether plants would manifest phenomena similar to those observed for animals. (BC)

Abstract from ERIC database search Author(s): Brumby, Margaret N.
Title: Students' Perceptions of the Concept of Life.
Source: Science Education v66 n4 p613-22 Jul 1982
Clearinghouse: SE531598
Language: English
Abstract: College students (N=52) were given unfamiliar or novel problems (written and interview responses) to determine how they characterize living things, criteria they use to distinguish
between living/dead/nonliving, and to determine if their idea of life included the interrelationship between organisms and biosphere. Results and implications are discussed. (Author/SK)
Abstract from ERIC database search Author(s): Papalia-Finlay, Diane Ellen
Title: The Life Concept in Female College Students: An Exploratory Analysis.
Source: Journal of Youth and Adolescence v7 n2 p133-39 Jun 1978
Clearinghouse: TM503825
Language: English
Abstract: A two-part animism questionnaire was adminstered to 200 female undergraduates with extensive backgrounds in science. When students classified objects as "living" or "nonliving," 67
percent gave evidence of animistic thought. Yet when subjects identified statements which reflected their own definition of living, 66 percent claimed that "only plants and animals are living."
Abstract from ERIC database search Author(s): Tamir, Pinchas ; And Others
Title: How Do Intermediate and Junior High School Students Conceptualize Living and Nonliving?
Source: Journal of Research in Science Teaching v18 n3 p241-48 May 1981
Clearinghouse: SE529428
Language: English
Abstract: The extent to which grades 3-7 students (N=424) hold animistic notions and the meanings of these notions were evaluated. A classification test composed of 16 pictures (8 living and 8
inanimate objects) and a questionnaire were used. Ninety-nine percent classified animals, 80 percent classified plants, and 56 percent classified embryos as living. (DS)
Abstract from ERIC database search Title: Children's Concept Learning: The Child's Concept of Life.
Author(s): Richards, D. Dean
Publication: U.S.; California; 1983-04-00
Description: 13 p.
Language: English
Abstract: To explore controversial findings concerning some of Piaget's claims, four experiments investigated conditions under which children use a criterion of movement in attributing life to
objects. In the first experiment, children ages 4 through 7 participated in a recognition task involving the identification of objects to which they attributed life. Children's judgments were
classified according to rules they appeared to use. In the second experiment, children ages 4 through 11 were asked to name as many living things as they could in 5 minutes, up to a maximum of 24.
Results of the two experiments provided no evidence that children routinely identify life by observing motion. With children of 4 through 11 years of age, a third experiment explored the discrepancy
between these results and previous studies by further investigating children's judgments and their explanations. It was found that one-fourth of the explanations of the youngest children referred to
motion and that the use of explanations involving motion decreased with age. This result may account for Piaget's suggestion that young children identify life by observing motion. A fourth experiment
investigated whether an emphasis on objects' motion states could influence children's judgments of whether an object was living or nonliving. It was found that whereas emphasis on objects' motion
states had little effect on the judgments of 6- to 9-year-old children, the majority of 4- and 5-year-olds did use a rule based on the current motion state of each object. (RH)
Abstract from ERIC database searc Author(s): Howe, Ann ; Johnson, Janice
Title: Intellectual Development and Elementary Science: Some Implications from Piagetian Research
Source: Science and Children 13, 2, 30-31, Oct 75
Clearinghouse: SE515006
Language: Language not available
Abstract: Suggestions are given relating to having plants and animals in the classroom to stimulate development of the understanding of the concept of being alive, a concept not really
understood by children under age nine. The research reviewed promotes firsthand experiences to help form concepts of living and nonliving, of identity and causality. (EB)