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By Osveen Funwi

How Do Children Learn and How Can You Get Them to Learn Better?

Children are the future, and in order to teach them, one must know how they learn. Many children receive iPads from their parents, and their parents believe they’re learning, but filling a kid’s world with screens isn’t always helpful. So, to truly help these children, you must know how they really learn.

When parents see their children throwing down plates and sprinkling food over the floor, they think the kids are only being destructive. But parents must understand that kids aren’t yet part of civilized society, and therefore, will not learn according to society’s rules.

Children have been thought to learn by recognizing facial expressions, but Tamar Kushnir, F. Xu, and M. H. Wellman thought differently. So, they conducted research for the Cornell University Department of Human Development.

Experiment One

In 2010, the three researchers studied three to four-year-olds. The researchers made one-third of the children watch a squirrel-like puppet take red foam circles from a box filled with only red foam circles, one-third of the children watch the puppet take the circles from a box of 50% blue flowers and 50% red circles, and one-third of the children watch the puppet take the circles from a box of 18% red circles and 82% blue flowers. The researchers then took away the boxes and the puppet. Now, to test what the kids inferred, the three placed a bowl of red foam circles, a bowl of blue flowers, and a bowl of never-before-seen toys all in front of each group of children. The three researchers then asked the children in the different groups to pick out which toy the puppet liked best.

The Results

The kids who watched the puppet choose from the container of 18% red foam circles chose the correct toy, the red foam circle, most often. Here, Wellman and Xu concluded that picking the puppet’s favorite toy was easy because the children could see that there were more blue toys. Thus, the children inferred that the puppet must really like the red foam circles if he went out of his way to choose them instead of the blue toys.

The children who watched the puppet choose from the container of 50% red foam circles picked the correct toy slightly less often. The researchers propose that here, because the number of the blue and red toys are equal, determining, through inference, the puppet’s favorite toy was harder.

The children who saw the puppet choose from a container of 100% red foam toys were the worst at picking out the puppet’s favorite toy. The children were worse, the researchers say, because there were only red foam circles, and if there was only one type of toy from which to choose, figuring out the person’s favorite type is impossible. In other words, if vanilla ice cream were the only flavor available in an ice cream truck, it still wouldn’t necessarily be your favorite flavor. It would simply be the only one available.

Xu and Wellman did this experiment again with 19 to 24-month-olds, and the outcome was similar. These results proved to them that children, instead of learning only through facial features, can also learn through statistical information. Although the results show that children can learn through statistics, the researchers do not know to what degree and how the learning varies by person.

Experiment Two

Kushnir did another experiment with A. Gopnik in 2007 to demonstrate that children could learn new information despite their previous assumptions. Kushnir and Gopnik chose to demonstrate this through contact causality, which means that touching an object will cause that object to light up, vibrate, or do something else.

In the on condition, a box would light up when the object the children held touched it. And in the over condition, the box would light up only when the object a child was holding was hovering over the box.

The two researchers showed the first group of children a box that had either the on or over condition. The children then had to figure out which one it was.

The two researchers then showed another group of children a box in both the over and on conditions. But the box expressed one more than the other: the box may respond to touching more or it may respond to hovering more. The children had to find out which condition worked more and change their behavior so as to light the box up.

The Results

The second group of children changed their methods of hovering or touching according to how frequently each method made the box light up. Overall, the results showed that children could learn through experience and revise their assumptions.


These two studies show that children can learn through experience. So, if you don’t allow your children to play, you will hinder their learning process. They may dirty the house and leave the shelves and pictures and such in disarray when playing, but that could be their own way of learning. As they say, life is the best teacher, so allow your child to experience it.

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