Ever wonder why children can so easily figure out how to work the TV remote? Or why they "totally get" apps on your smartphone faster than you? It turns out that young children may be more open-minded than adults when it comes to solving problems.
Psychologist Alison Gopnik led the study along with her colleague Christopher Lucas from the University of Edinburgh. They wanted to find out what goes on in children's brains that allows them to learn so much so quickly.
So they recruited over 100 preschoolers — 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls — and brought them into the lab. The kids had to figure out how to turn on a music box that could be activated by placing clay shapes either individually or in combination on top of the box. After being shown a whole series of different shapes and combinations, the children were asked if they could make the machine turn on.
"We were trying to see if very young children could figure out cause and effect," says Gopnik. "What will the children do in that crucial question about making the machine go?"
The scientists also tested 170 college students. "What we discovered, to our surprise, was not only were 4-year-olds amazingly good at doing this, but they were actually better at it than grown-ups were," Gopnik says.
So why are little kids who can't even tie their shoes better at figuring out the gadget than adults? After all, conventional wisdom contends that young children really don't understand abstract things like cause and effect until pretty late in their development.
Gopnik thinks it's because children approach solving the problem differently than adults.
Children try a variety of novel ideas and unusual strategies to get the gadget to go. For example, Gopnik says, "If the child sees that a square block and a round block independently turn the music on, then they'll take a square and take a circle and put them both on the machine together to make it go, even though they never actually saw the experimenters do that."
This is flexible, fluid thinking — children exploring an unlikely hypothesis. Exploratory learning comes naturally to young children, says Gopnik. Adults, on the other hand, jump on the first, most obvious solution and doggedly stick to it, even if it's not working. That's inflexible, narrow thinking. "We think the moral of the study is that maybe children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one," says Gopnik.
And that flexibility may disappear earlier than we think. Gopnik's lab has also compared toddlers and kindergartners in doing these tests of abstract thinking, and found that the diaper set are actually better at focusing on the relationship between the objects, rather than on the things.
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DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: And I'm David Greene. Today, in Your Health - online therapy. It is a growing trend in mental health. But first, we knew this was coming - a study has found that when it comes to figuring out unfamiliar gadgets, preschoolers reign supreme. They outsmart even college students. The research comes from the University of California at Berkeley. And as Michelle Trudeau reports, it's not that these youngsters were born into a more tech-savvy world, there's more going on here.
MICHELLE TRUDEAU, BYLINE: Ever wonder why children can so easily figure out how to work the TV remote or why they totally get apps on your smart phone faster than you? Psychologist Alison Gopnik researches this impressive ability in young children.
ALISON GOPNIK: So how do they think? What are their minds and brains doing that let them learn as much as they do and as quickly as they do?
TRUDEAU: To explore what's going on in a young child's mind, Gopnik and her colleague Christopher Lucas recruited a group of preschoolers, brought them into her lab to see if the kids could figure out what causes a certain tiny machine to turn on.
GOPNIK: A machine that had a particular kind of cause-and-effect. In this case, a machine where a block made the machine light up and play music. Would the children be able to figure out how the machine worked by seeing a pattern of blocks that made it go and blocks that didn't make it go?
TRUDEAU: Here's the experiment in progress.
SOPHIE BRIDGERS: OK. Now let's see what happens when we put triangle and ball on the machine together. Look at that. The machine turned on.
TRUDEAU: Researcher Sophie Bridgers is running the experiment, putting different shaped blocks on top of the machine. A 4-year-old sits opposite, watching intently which blocks make the music turn on and which don't.
BRIDGERS: OK, so let's see what happens when we put triangle on the machine. Are you ready? Let's see. Look at that. The machine did not turn on.
TRUDEAU: After being shown a whole series of different shaped blocks, the children are then asked if they can make the machine turn on.
GOPNIK: What will the children do in that crucial question about making the machine go? Trying to see if very young children could figure out cause-and-effect.
TRUDEAU: Over 100 preschoolers - 4 and 5-year-old boys and girls - were tested. Also tested - 170 college students.
GOPNIK: What we discovered to our surprise, was not only that 4-year-olds were amazingly good at doing this but they were actually better at it than grown-ups were.
TRUDEAU: The children were more than twice as good at solving the problem as the adults. But wait - how can preschoolers beat college students? These little kids can't even tie their shoes or read. Plus, conventional wisdom contends that young children really don't understand abstract things like cause-and-effect until pretty late in their development, certainly not as young as 4 or 5 years old.
GOPNIK: No one would have thought that they could take a pattern of statistics - say, the fact that one thing was correlated with another - and figure out whether that one thing caused the other thing to happen.
TRUDEAU: But these preschoolers are doing just that. Based now on several studies, Gopnik believes children approach solving the problem differently than adults. Children try a variety of novel ideas - unusual strategies to get the gizmo to go. For example, if the child sees that a square block and a round block each independently turn the music on...
GOPNIK: Then they'll take a square and take a circle and put them both on the machine together to make it go even though they never actually saw the experimenter do that.
TRUDEAU: That's flexible, fluid thinking, says Gopnik, children exploring an unlikely hypothesis. Adults on the other hand, jump on the first most obvious solution and doggedly stick to that even if it's not working.
GOPNIK: So even if the pattern showed that you really need the combination of blocks - just one block by itself wouldn't work - they still kept trying their old hypothesis.
TRUDEAU: That's inflexible, narrow thinking, says Gopnik.
GOPNIK: And we think the moral of the study is that maybe that children are better at solving problems when the solution's an unexpected one.
TRUDEAU: So all you adults out there - don't hand over that TV remote to the youngest person in the room. Give it another try. Think outside the box. Probe the improbable. You just might turn on the TV. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.