Parents and other adults often provide children with help while they are engaged in difficult tasks. However, little is known about what younger and older children do with that help (e.g. do they take the advice they are given by adults, or do they ignore it?). This study explored how children, aged 1-5 years, solve a challenging puzzle when they work on it alone, and after they get help from a parent.
In this study, children worked on a wooden block puzzle that had many possible solutions. First, we asked children to work on the puzzle on their own. For half of the children, their parents were then allowed to provide whatever help they thought their child needed to solve the puzzle. For the other children, parents were asked sit on their hands while they offered their help – this allowed those parents to speak, but not gesture, to their children. Finally, all of the children worked on the puzzle on their own once more.
Our hypothesis was that older children would use problem-solving strategies that were more varied and more complex than younger children did. We also predicted that as children get older, they might use more of the information and advice they were given by their parents (from their words or their gestures) when they tried to solve the puzzle again on their own.
We found that children ages 3-4.5 years solved more of the puzzle the second time when their parents were allowed to gesture, compared to when their parents were only allowed to speak. It’s possible that for these children, the puzzle was challenging enough that they were almost able to solve it on their own, but not quite. The additional information from a parent’s gestures might give children at this age the help that they need to pick up new strategies for solving the puzzle. Children younger than 3, and older than 4.5, were equally successful whether or not their parent was allowed to use his or her hands. For children at these ages, the puzzle might be either too hard or too easy, and so the parent’s help might not influence children’s strategies.
Our results show that children between the ages of 3 and 4.5 might benefit the most from both observing their parents’ gestures and listening to their parents’ advice while solving problems, and that a parent’s gestures might be most helpful when children are attempting to solve problems just beyond their reach.
For more information about this research, you can read a summary of How Adults’ Lend a Helping Hand Children’s Puzzle Solving.
Learn about other research related to Learning From Others.
This research is conducted by the Paul Harris Lab at Harvard University.