It’s child’s play

Piaget's view - that children learn through play and exploration - is widely accepted as being integral to cognitive development. Surprisingly few scientists, however, have systematically investigated how exploration is structured to support learning mechanisms in different situations and even fewer have studied it in non-human animals. Traditionally, the methodological approach for studying cognitive development in human and non-human animals has been very different, but a comparative approach can be very informative. We exploited the strong explorative tendencies of parrots and human children, and designed a series of comparative experiments to provide a window into the mechanisms and strategies used in causal learning. Here we focus on the human studies, where we presented a series of tasks involving novel objects and physical problems to children (aged 4 to 7 years) to examine in detail the process of exploration and play in different contexts. We found that children pay more attention and explore more when there are subtle functional changes in an object (e.g. weight) rather than non-functional changes (e.g. colour). The diversity of these exploratory behaviours increases with age. Children understand how simple physical principles govern the behaviour of objects, but here we discuss to what level this extends across development depending on the exploration strategy employed. These results will be compared to similar tests carried out on parrots. We hope this will give us insight into how we and other animals process information in a wide range of environmental situations.

F1000 Presentation

Zoe Demery 2012