Learning In The Wild

These projects aim to explore how the plant-related behavioral avoidance strategies and social learning processes we discovered in the laboratory unfold in more naturalistic settings. To do this, we take our studies out of the lab and into the garden.


We recently completed data collection on a three-year longitudinal study examining how children from 1 to 6 years of age learn about plants and retain that information over time. Our research group designed a gardening program for young children that began with children planting seeds and seedlings and then caring for the plants as they grew for 8 weeks. Throughout this time, the children engaged 
in weekly gardening sessions with members of our research team which focused on different features of the plants. Children’s knowledge about the plants was assessed before and after each year’s gardening program with a series of standardized tasks, and their behavior during the gardening sessions is being coded from videos of the sessions. Data coding is ongoing and will give us insight into how children learn from others in a naturalistic setting.


In a second study we examined dyadic parent-child interactions around plants in a naturalistic environment. In this observational study, we invited parents and children to the gardens of the MPIB and asked parents to show their children several different plants in whichever way they choose. We recorded the interactions on video to examine what kinds of behaviors parents and children exhibit when they explore plants together and what types of information they share with one another. Preliminary analyses of these videos have yielded important insights. For example, observing parents and children in this naturalistic setting revealed a prominent role for olfactory cues in parent- child communication about plants.


The goal of this project is to investigate how infants living in different cultural environments and natural ecologies interact with plants. In collaboration with anthropologists from University of California, Los Angeles, we recently conducted a study among the Shuar, a group of hunter-horticulturalists living in the Amazon basin in Ecuador. In contrast to children living in urban areas of Western societies, Shuar children grow up fully immersed in the natural world. They have much richer first-hand contact with plants, both with the cultivated plants growing around their homes and the wild plants in the jungle, and they learn about plants from adults who have extensive experience about the local flora. Therefore, this culture provides an informative comparison with our urban and suburban infant participants. We are especially interested in Shuar infants’ behavioral avoidance and social information seeking strategies for plants and other types of objects.


This project investigates how species with different evolutionary histories and natural ecologies interact with plants. We use comparative experimental methods to study our closest living relatives, non-human primates. Currently we are assessing whether the behavioral strategies that non-human primates use for plants are similar to, or different from, the behavioral avoidance strategy our group has observed in human infants. To do this, we are exploring the behavior of all four great ape species (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans) and capuchin monkeys towards plants compared to other natural and artificial entities. In collaboration with researchers from the Comparative Cognition Center at Yale University, we recently completed data collection for this study at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center (WKPRC) in Leipzig.

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