Event perception in preschool-age children


Ekaterina Khlystova








PhD Candidate


Laurel Perkins



Verb learning requires being able to map between linguistic structure and a conceptual representation of the event that verb labels. Much work has centered around the nature of children's early linguistic representations, as well as possible strategies for mapping between linguistic and conceptual structure. However, this work has centered primarily on simple transitive or intransitive verbs describing one or two participant scenes -- but children must also learn verbs with more complex structures, like "trade", which describes an exchange of two items between two people, for a total of four participants involved. Further, very little is known about the nature of infants' and children's conceptual representations of events, further obscuring the mechanisms of early verb learning. This type of complex verb learning could potentially be impeded by early perceptual constraints: infants and young children have been reported to have a visual working memory limit of 3. If this is the case, how might they be tracking the participants in a complex event type such as a trade? In this experiment, we plan to investigate the conceptual structure of preschool children's mental representations of a trading scene by determining if they notice changes to the number of participants in a series of trading scenes.

This novel research will contribute to scientific knowledge on early verb learning, a crucial process in language development that is necessary for children's ability to communicate and underpins future literacy. Specifically, by understanding how children perceive complex event types, we can better understand how children approach the difficult task of learning novel verbs and how linguistic labels can map to events in the real world. Further, in studying children's conceptual representations of trading events, we will learn more about their early understanding of complex social interactions, a crucial aspect of social and emotional development.


In this project, we are testing both adults and preschool aged children on their event representations of trading scenes -- in particular, asking whether adults and children can track all four participants in such scenes, when this requires the visual working memory system to operate at (or, in the case of young children) beyond the limits of the system. As expected, our adult studies have shown that adults are able to track all four participants; we now turn to the question of whether preschool-age children can notice the changes to the participant structure of the same scenes in order to determine the conceptual structure of children's event representations.


Determine whether 4-5 year old children can track all four participants in a trading scene. This helps advance our scientific understanding of the contribution of developing working memory systems to early word learning and will contribute to a PhD dissertation investigating the role of developing cognitive systems on early language learning and use.


This research will help elucidate a core aspect of language learning, as well as inform us as to young children's perception of complex event types. In doing so, this project contributes to early language development and communication research, as well as investigate children's early understanding of complex social interactions.


Findings from this study constitute a chapter of the PI's dissertation. A manuscript describing the findings from the study may also be submitted to peer-reviewed journals and/or conference proceedings.




We ask for typically developing 4-5 year olds who are capable of understanding spoken instructions in English (children from the ECI Pre-K classrooms)


We will use a "picky puppet" task (Waxman and Gelman 1986) to complete this experiment. This task is well-established in psychological and language development research as it allows children to freely give judgements on their categorization of cards, sentences, or other items.

In this version of the "picky puppet" task, children will be pulled aside individually to complete a video sorting task with the experimenter. At the start of the experiment, the child will be introduced to a "very picky" puppet, who is described as only liking videos pairs that match. Children will be asked to help the puppet sort a set of 16 videos into ones that the puppet likes and ones they wouldn't like by placing either a happy face sticker or a sad face sticker in the box corresponding to that video. After a brief training period with explicit feedback from the puppet (6 videos), the test phase will begin. Children will watch the remaining 10 videos without feedback from the puppet, placing stickers on the grid to mark their choice, with praise and encouragement from the experimenter. After the experiment, the puppet will reappear and thank the child for helping them sort the videos.

The experiment should take roughly 20 minutes for each child to complete, with an estimated range of 15-30 minutes. The videos consist of two clips of people "trading" toys back and forth with small manipulations, such as which toys are being moved, how they're being moved, or who is moving them. We have attached one of the videos to the "Attachments" page for your review.

We are measuring the number of "yes" and "no" responses to the question of whether or not the videos match (that is, whether or not the puppet would like the video pair). To analyze the data, we will aggregate the responses from all of the children tested and compare the frequency of yes/no responses for each condition/change type presented. The session video recordings will only serve as back-up for the experimenter notes and will not be analyzed directly.


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We would like to record the sessions using the webcam of the laptop used to provide back-up for experimenter notes taken during the session.
We are treating the "picky puppet" task as an individual interview, as we were not sure what type of activity this would fall under. No additional interviews will be necessary -- just the ~20 minute picky puppet task.


The picky puppet task (Waxman and Gelman 1986) is a well-established task used in both developmental psychology and linguistics research, which allows children to freely give judgements on their categorization of cards, sentences, or other items.


Yes -- see "Attachments" for a consent form we would like sent home to parents.


No risk of harm is posed through participation in this study. Video recordings will not contain any identifiable information about the child, only a subject code.




Children will be assigned subject codes and any links between subject codes and participant information will be stored separately from the data and video recordings. After the completion of the session, videos will immediately be transferred and stored on a secure server at the Language Lab at the UCLA Department of Linguistics and will be labelled only with the subject code. Only the trained investigators involved in the study will have access to the data and audio/video records. These confidentiality measures have been approved by the UCLA IRB.
















Approved - no CR required, date 11/7/2022


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