Our Research

Evolution is generally not taught until adolescence and is very difficult to learn
(learn more about why here). 

However, our research shows that, when read a storybook about how a species trait evolved in response to an environmental change, children as young as five can learn about natural selection. They can also retain what they learn for at least 3 months (learn more about our storybooks and associated teaching materials here). 


Click  on the years and pilose below to learn more about our research over the years!









Having demonstrated that our book was effective for different groups of children, we wanted to investigate how broadly children could apply the knowledge they had gained if they heard two storybooks in a classroom setting. We found that, after discussing our books, 7- to 8-year-olds could accurately apply the logic of adaptation by natural selection whether they were reasoning about traits relevant to gathering food or camouflage. These results endured after a one month delay.

In 2017, we were also excited to publish our first storybook; "How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses.", so that teachers and parents everywhere would be able to access, and use, this tried and tested resource. Purchase here. 

After demonstrating that children could learn adaptation by natural selection from our storybook, we explored what aspects of the book helped 5- to 8-year-old children learn. In this study, we show that the book discusses animal populations and their traits in specific ways that avoid common pitfalls that feed children's (and adults') misconceptions about species and evolutionary change. 

A new book continuing our Evolving Minds sequence is currently in the process of being published... It will be on its way soon!

Many thanks to the National Science Foundation for funding this project for a further four years! For more information, click here.

Research published this year (Brown et al., 2020) found that 2nd and 3rd grade children were able to learn about natural selection using our materials in a classroom-based, teacher-led intervention.

Brown, S.A., Ronfard, S., and Kelemen, D. (2020). Teaching natural selection in early elementary classrooms: can a storybook intervention reduce teleological misunderstandings?. Evolution Education and Outreach, 13, 12 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12052-020-00127-7 

Our initial storybook study was conducted in a quiet lab setting with children from middle and higher socioeconomic backgrounds. To see if our findings applied to a broader group of children, we tested a more diverse set of 5- to 8-year-olds in an after-school program. We replicated our initial results. Both 5- to 6-year-old children and 7- to 8-year-old children learned from our storybook.  

We demonstrated that 5- to 8-year-old children can learn a basic but theoretically coherent explanation of adaptation by natural selection using our storybook. In this study, we also showed that children can retain what they learn for at least 3 months and apply it to a new context.  

In 2018, we were delighted to publish a second book in our Evolving Minds series; this one entitled 'How the Dormacks Evolved Longer Backs'. Purchase here.


Research published in 2017 (Emmons, Lees, & Kelemen, 2017) demonstrates that, when this storybook is used alongside "How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses", children's learning is facilitated; understanding of natural selection is extended, as they understand its application to different animals.

Kelemen, D. and The Child Cognition Lab (2018). How the Dormacks Evolved Longer Backs. Tumblehome Learning: Boston.

In 2019, we studied the effectiveness of a third book in the Evolving Minds series, which is now due to be published in 2020!

Research published in 2019 (Kelemen, 2019) made the case for teaching children about complex concepts like natural selection at a much earlier age than is typical. 

Kelemen, D. (2019). The Magic of Mechanism: Explanation-based instruction on counterintuitive concepts in early childhood. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1-13, doi.org/10.1177/1745691619827011.

In 2020, we studied the effectiveness of a third book in the Evolving Minds series, Meet the Miroungas, which chronicles the evolution of a novel species.Brown, S. A., Ronfard, S., & Kelemen, D. (2020). Teaching natural selection in early elementary classrooms: can a storybook intervention reduce teleological misunderstandings?. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 13, 1-19. PDF


We also began a study of teacher's understandings of natural selection and teacher learning from an online professional development session.

We also began work on a fourth book in the Evolving Minds series which incorporates fossils and tells the story of speciation using real animals rather than fictional ones.

Lastly, in 2020 we began developing hands-on materials and lessons for teachers to bring the Evolving Minds Project directly into their classrooms.

In 2021 we published a paper showing that second and third graders were able to learn and generalize the logic of speciation from our storybook, Meet the Miroungas.


Ronfard, S., Brown, S., Doncaster, E., Kelemen, D. (2021) Inhibiting intuition: Scaffolding children’s theory construction about species evolution in the face of competing explanations. Cognition, 211, 104635.

We also continued work on the development of lessons and materials for teachers to support classrooms learning about natural selection.