Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Directing kids not just wasted breath

Frustrated parents rejoice: instructions to toddlers may not just be going 'in one ear, out the other' after all.

According to psychologist Christopher Chatham, young children tend to store instructions and recall them after the fact, rather than act on them instantly.

"For example, let's say it's cold outside and you tell your three-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside," said Chatham, who is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"You might expect the child to plan for the future, think 'okay it's cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm'," he explained.

"But what we suggest is that this isn't what goes on in a three-year-old's brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it."

With psychology professor Yuko Munakata, Chatham conducted a study of three-and-a-half to six year olds.

The children were presented with a computer game that required them to press a button when the image appeared on screen.

Meanwhile, the researchers measured the diameter of the pupil of each child's eye to determine the mental effort of the child.

While older children completed the tasks relatively effortlessly, preschoolers were found to have more difficulty.

"The older kids found this sequence easy, because they can anticipate the answer before the object appears," Chatham said.

"But preschoolers fail to anticipate in this way. Instead, they slow down and exert mental effort after being presented with the [image], as if they're thinking back to the character they had seen only after the fact."

The researchers concluded that young children neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it.

More information is available from the University of Colorado's press release.

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