Planning to Plan

#FreshFromTheLab: This week we discuss the science behind how youngsters learn how to problem solve.

As adults, we are expert problem solvers. Now, I’m not just talking about solving the instruction manual for that supposedly “super-easy-to-put-up” Ikea chest of drawers. No, I’m talking about the little things that we don’t need to think too much about, but actually require quite a complex set of cognitive processes (a.k.a. a lot of brain power). Using a knife and fork, opening a door lock with a key, plugging in the fairy-lights for the Christmas tree (yes, it’s still November and I said the C-word). All of which could be considered tool-use behaviour. Using tools require us to be adaptive problem solvers. The tools aren’t always the same, they aren’t always in the same place, and what we are using them for isn’t always the same. We need to adapt our behaviour to solve the task of using the tool across many different circumstances.

How do we learn to efficiently adapt our behaviour? When humans are born, we are unable to even hold our heads up - let alone have the ability change how hard we press when using a knife to cut into steak versus jelly. It takes time to learn these things, and this is what Dr. Ori Ossmy from New York University researches: the development of adaptive behavioural problem solving.

To do this Dr. Ori Ossmy invited a bunch of 3-5-year-olds to the lab to play a game of hit the peg into the hole with a hammer. But this was no ordinary game. The kids who participated in Ori’s game were rigged up with cutting edge high-tech (child-friendly!) equipment that could record information about where they were looking, how their brain was working and how quickly the children were reaching for the hammer.

But there was a catch. Dr. Ori Ossmy sneakily changed the position of the hammer each time it was presented in front of the child. The hammer was placed in one of two positions so that children would have to use different grasping techniques (see here). Either in the “dominant-hand condition” so that the child could use an overhand grasp to pick it up. For example, if you are right-handed, the head of the hammer would be positioned towards your left so you would use your dominant hand to pick the hammer up by its handle with your palm facing downwards. Or in the “non-dominant-hand condition” where the head of the hammer was positioned towards the opposite direction, so you would need to use your adaptive problem-solving skill by using an underhand grasp (palm facing upwards) technique in order to quickly grasp the hammer with your dominant hand in the correct orientation. Those who weren’t able to adapt their grasping in the non-dominant hand condition (because they were likely too young and hadn’t learnt how to yet) would use an overhand grasp, meaning they would need to put the hammer down first to change the hammers orientation – they would be considered as nonadaptive problem solvers.

Using all his clever technology, Dr. Ori Ossmy studied the “real-time cascade” of adaptive problem solving – the series events leading up to a child adapting their hand position to pick up the hammer. The child would first look at the hammer to gather visual information about its size, shape and location in the environment. They would then process this information and plan their actions in their head. And then they would act.

Interestingly, Dr. Ori Ossmy demonstrated children with the most efficient adaptive hammer grasping would look specifically and quickly at the hammer, and would be less distracted by the environment surrounding the hammer. This indicated the importance of gathering hammer specific visual information quickly. But, Dr. Ori Ossmy wanted to take it a step further. He wanted to see if he could improve the children’s adaptive problem-solving abilities. Just like magpies, humans are attracted to shiny things. This is because they stand out to us, or, as scientists would say, they are salient. Dr. Ori Ossmy made the hammer salient by decorating it with glitter. He predicted that the shiny hammer would attract the child’s attention, which will give them more time to look at the hammer specifically and consider their plan of actions. And he was right. By making the hammer sparkly, the children looked more quickly at the hammer, meaning they could gather more visual information quicker which would lead to efficient adaptive grasping of the hammer. So I guess there is a science behind the sometime garish colour choices these toy makers use?

Why not try our app for activities to help you learn about other aspects of your little one's movement?

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