When Do Children Know the Difference Between Living and Inanimate Things?

Research about the notion of 'living' things began in the 1920s. When you think about this concept it is easy to understand why it is hard to grasp. Cars move, trees are static and only move in the wind like the washing, candle flames flicker and flutter.

The foundation of modern thinking about this began with the research by Piaget. His early studies showed that young children tend to impart many inanimate objects with emotions, sensations and even some form or intent. To them most things are alive. He referred to this as 'animism'.

His studies found that many kids thought that objects that move such as cars, fires, the wind and clocks are alive have feelings. They even believe that these objects 'know where they are'. 

Children younger than 10 years often believe that inanimate objects acted with their own purposes and intent: ‘The sun is hot because it wants to make people warm'.

Five Stages in Evolution and Understand of What is Alive

Subsequent research has identified 5 Stages in the evolution and understanding of the life concept in children.

1. Age less than 5 years - No concept or understanding of ‘living things’

2. Age 6-7 - Things that move, make sounds or are active in any way are alive. 

3. Age 8-9 – Only things that move are alive. 

4. Age 9-10 - Things that are capable of moving by themselves, including rivers and the sun, are alive. 

5. Age 11 years and older – Most children have developed the adult concept that plants and animals are alive and most other things are not.

One of the main problems is that the meaning of the word 'alive' changes as children get older and it is such an abstract concept. What are the properties of living things that children could know, recognise and understand then just by looking at them? Younger children don’t really understand biology and how living things work.

Outcomes from Recent Research

Research in the 1970s tried to understand the criteria of living things that children use to decide whether something is alive. Many children believed that things could be alive at one time and inanimate at other times. 

One study reported that two thirds of a group of 7 year olds correctly identified 16 items as living or non-living. However this was not related to understanding of biology. Only half of the successful ones showed any understanding of breathing, nutrition or reproduction as being a characteristic of living things. Many children at this age considered fire, river, car, clouds, sun, candles, and similar objects that moved to be living. 

A study in Israel of children aged from 5-16 years old found that only 30% of the 6 year-olds, and 75% of 12-15 year-olds regarded plants as being alive, despite recognising that plants grow. Only about 50% of children regarded eggs and seeds as alive. Many of these children believed that living organisms could develop from non-living, using seeds as an example. They only become alive when planted.

Studies of British University biology students showed that the range of criteria used to identify living thing expands in then teenage years to the renowned seven features of life:

  • movement
  • respiration
  • sensitivity
  • growth
  • reproduction
  • excretion
  • nutrition

However, there was evidence that some University students did not really understand these concepts:

  • Many appeared to rote learn the fragmentary facts without understanding biological concepts.
  • Many appeared to develop a list or what was living organisms and inanimate objects, rather than being able to work them out using the principles they were taught.

So, Even University students found it difficult to grasp the concept of ‘living things’. 

This makes it clear why young children struggle to tell the difference.