It is no surprise that children learn quickly by watching others, but previous research had shown that children are also good at spontaneously generating their own evidence during play. This study asked: How do children’s desires to imitate a teacher affect their ability to learn on their own during play?
Children, aged 4-5 years, played with a novel toy in order to figure out how it works. The toy had four hidden causal properties: a tube that made a squeaking sound when it was pulled, a button that turned on a light, a mirror hidden inside another tube, and a pad that played music. In one condition, the researcher first demonstrated one of the causal properties of the toy – she made the toy squeak by pulling on the tube. In another condition, the researcher either “accidentally” discovered the same property of the toy, or was interrupted while she was demonstrating how the toy worked. In a third condition, children received no demonstration – the researcher simply looked at the toy. In all conditions, children were then allowed to play with the toy on their own.
After playing, children were asked to demonstrate the different causal properties of the toy. We predicted that children who received no demonstration would discover most of the causal properties of the toy on their own. However, we predicted that children who had seen a demonstration of one of the toy’s functions would imitate only the action demonstrated, and would be less likely to discover the other properties of the object. Children in this condition might assume that their “teacher” showed them everything that the toy could do.
We found that children notice when others attempt to teach them about how things work, and that they use information provided by adults to guide their explorations of the world. Children in our study spent less time playing with the toy when the researcher demonstrated how it worked, compared to when the researcher discovered the same property accidentally or when she was interrupted before she could finish the demonstration. This was true even when children simply overheard the researcher demonstrate how the toy worked for another child. Children who didn’t receive any demonstration played with the toy longer, and discovered more of the other properties of the toy.
This research shows that when adults give explicit instructions to children, kids often imitate only the actions demonstrated. While this is a valuable skill when children are in classroom settings, they may learn more through free play when adults allow them to explore objects on their own.
This research was recently published in the journal Cognition, and was featured in a Boston Globe article. You can download and read the paper: The Double-edged Sword of Pedagogy: Modeling the Effect of Pedagogical Contexts on Preschoolers’ Exploratory Play.
Learn about other research related to Learning From Others.
This research is conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT