Children sometimes struggle with tasks that need concentration for a long time but are good at finding tricks to make it easier to complete these tasks, according to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE. The team based at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, showed that children can come up with spontaneous ways to help them achieve different tasks.
Children can’t concentrate for long periods of time, they remember less, and have a shorter attention span than adults. It’s always been assumed that this meant they were at a disadvantage when solving tasks. However, a team from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development showed that this lack of attentional focus might, in fact, represent an advantage.
It turned out children are good at processing less relevant information and using it to find creative ways to solve complex tasks. While children perform worse solving tasks using standard methods, such as using prolonged focussed attention, they are masters at using spontaneous strategy shifts.
“Our results show that while children are often less focused and more easily distracted than adults, they are surprisingly flexible in discovering entirely new solutions,” says psychologist and neuroscientist Nicolas Schuck, group leader of the Max Planck Research Group “NeuroCode” at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. “Especially considering their not fully developed ability to concentrate, these are important results for researching learning behavior in children.”
The study started back in 2013 and followed 47 children aged 8 to 10 years old and 39 young adults aged 20 to 35 years old. All participants were asked to determine the position of a pattern from two possible answers. The colour of the pattern was not relevant at first but was incorporated into the answers as the task progressed. As long as participants noticed this, they could complete the task more easily.
Compared to young adults, children performed worse in solving this task, mainly because they answered too quickly before understanding the pattern. However, the proportion of children who discovered the “colour trick” was similar to that of the young adults.
This can have significant repercussions to develop new teaching methods. “Our findings provide evidence that educators, parents, and teachers should be less insistent on rigid rules by only teaching one concrete way to solve problems, but also value and encourage children’s broader attentional focus. Our findings show: We can have more confidence in children’s creative problem-solving strategies,” says Anika Löwe of the NeuroCode team and co-author of the study.
Schuck, N. W., Li, A. X., Wenke, D., Ay-Bryson, D. S., Loewe, A. T., Gaschler, R., & Shing, Y. L. (2022). Spontaneous discovery of novel task solutions in children. PLoS ONE, 17(5), Article e0266253. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266253