Back to the Future: psychologists examine children's mental time traveling abilities

August 05, 2008

Planning and anticipating occur so frequently in our everyday lives that it is hard to imagine a time when we didn't have this capability. But just as many other capacities develop, so does this mental time traveling ability. Researchers have recently explored how children comprehend the future and ways that this understanding can be affected by, for example, their current physiological state.

In one particular study, psychologists Cristina Atance from the University of Ottawa and colleague Andrew Meltzoff from the Univeristy of Washington tested children ages three, four and five to determine the precise age that they develop the ability to plan for the future. Atance presented preschoolers with a pretend situation in the future, such as going to the mountains, and then asked them to choose from three items to take along. In the mountain scenario, the three items included a lunch, which would prepare for the possibility of hunger, and two unrelated items, such as a comb and a bowl. Results showed that four- and five-year-olds were more likely to select the correct response for future planning, such as the lunch, than the three-year-olds.

Other findings, which appear in the August 2008 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, indicated that children found it difficult to imagine their future selves in a particular situation if they were preoccupied with their current state.

To show this, Atance and Meltzoff presented one group of preschoolers with pretzels, which would cause them to become thirsty, and did not present a second group with anything; both groups later were offered either pretzels or water. The first group of children, who already had eaten pretzels, tended to choose water while the other group selected pretzels. More importantly, two other groups of children--one who had eaten pretzels and one who had not--were asked to choose whether they would prefer pretzels or water for "tomorrow." The psychologists found that the children who ate pretzels to the point of thirst tended to think of the pretzels as undesirable for the next day, whereas the other group did not.

These findings and others can shed light on the childhood development of this mental time-traveling ability and encourage understanding of it in various settings. As Atance said, "This research can benefit parents, teachers and other individuals working with children as it can allow them to set realistic expectations for, and better interpret, children's everyday behavior."
Author Contact: Cristina Atance

Current Directions in Psychological Science publishes concise reviews on the latest advances in theory and research spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications. For a copy of "Future Thinking in Young Children," please contact Katie Kline at (202) 293-9300 or

Association for Psychological Science

Related Children Articles from Brightsurf:

Black and Hispanic children in the US have more severe eczema than white children
A presentation at this year's virtual American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting reveals the disparities that exist for Black and Hispanic children when it comes to Atopic Dermatitis (AD), commonly known as eczema.

Black children with cancer three times less likely to receive proton radiotherapy than White children
A retrospective analysis led by investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital has found racial disparities in the use of the therapy for patients enrolled in trials.

The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health: First Europe-wide study of children confirms COVID-19 predominately causes mild disease in children and fatalities are very rare
Children with COVID-19 generally experience a mild disease and fatalities are very rare, according to a study of 582 patients from across Europe published today in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.

Children not immune to coronavirus; new study from pandemic epicenter describes severe COVID-19 response in children
- While most children infected with the novel coronavirus have mild symptoms, a subset requires hospitalization and a small number require intensive care.

How many children is enough?
Most Russians would like to have two children: a boy and a girl.

Preterm children have similar temperament to children who were institutionally deprived
A child's temperament is affected by the early stages of their life.

Only-children more likely to be obese than children with siblings
Families with multiple children tend to make more healthy eating decisions than families with a single child.

Children living in countryside outperform children living in metropolitan area in motor skills
Residential density is related to children's motor skills, engagement in outdoor play and organised sports. that Finnish children living in the countryside spent more time outdoors and had better motor skills than their age peers in the metropolitan area.

Hispanic and black children more likely to miss school due to eczema than white children
In a study that highlights racial disparities in the everyday impact of eczema, new research shows Hispanic and black children are more likely than white children to miss school due to the chronic skin disease.

Children, their parents, and health professionals often underestimate children's higher weight status
More than half of parents underestimated their children's classification as overweight or obese -- children themselves and health professionals also share this misperception, according to new research being presented at this year's European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Glasgow, UK (April 28-May 1).

Read More: Children News and Children Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to