Young children--just 4 or 5 years old--may be better at college students at catching on when it comes to operating mobile apps, remote controls, and other tech gadgets that often leave adults scratching their heads and fumbling through manuals. According to new research from the University of California at Berkeley, it's the tots' openness to thinking about new challenges in multiple ways that enables them to problem-solve their way to success with gadgets and games.
In the study, more than 100 preschoolers and more than 170 college students were given a music box game and shown how the placement of differently-shaped clay pieces on top of the box might make it turn on. The subjects were then asked to turn the box on. NPR reports on the findings:
"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," [psychologist Alison] 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.
Gopnik went on to say that this openness may disappear early in childhood--even by kindergarten, it may be diminishing.
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Image: Confused college student, via Shutterstock