The Ultimate Block Party's Blog

“What is this thing?” — Helping your child to discover, explore, and learn!

Posted on: January 27, 2011

Imagine that you walk into a preschool and see a toy you haven’t seen before.  The teacher walks in and says, “Hi there!  This is a new toy that we just got from the store.  I haven’t had the chance to play with it yet, but here, take a look and see what it can do.” What would you do with the toy?  Now imagine that she said this instead, “Hi there! This is a new toy that we just got from the store.  I really like it. Look at what it can do!” She then pushes a button on the toy to play music. Now what would you do with the toy?

How did your responses differ in the two scenarios? In the first example, the teacher was naïve and didn’t know what to do with the toy.  You would probably explore and play with the toy to see what fun things it could do, right? In the latter case, the teacher showed you what the toy did.  You would probably hit the button to play the music a number of times because this is what the toy does. Would you do anything else with the toy?

New research published in the journal Cognition explores how teaching influences children’s exploration, discovery, and learning. Similar to the example above, children were shown a brand new toy and an adult (a) directly and purposefully showed them one of four possible functions of a toy (explicit teaching), (b) accidentally discovered a function of the toy, or (c) did not show any functions of the toy.  Then, children were given as much time as they wanted to explore and play with the toy. Children who were explicitly taught spent less time exploring the toy, discovered fewer functions, and played for a shorter period of time compared to those who were not taught!

What does this tell us about how children learn?  Does it mean that we should never directly show our children anything so that they explore the world?  No!  On the one hand, this is great news because it means that our children learn when we try to teach them about new objects. BUT, when we directly show our children how something works, we also “constrain” how they see the object by zeroing in on one particular aspect. Remember, creative thinking begins with ‘flexible thinking’—and is grounded in exploration, discovery, and play. As the researchers state, this creates a ‘double-edged’ sword.  What can we do?

• Allow our children to explore an object first.  Let them experiment, turn it upside down, push, pull, and shake!  Then, after they explore, we can then show them what they haven’t yet discovered (if anything!).  This lets your child be creative, but also lets them benefit from your expertise.

• Prompt your child to keep exploring an object even after you showed them something about it. This way, they see an example of what a toy might be able to do, but you also encourage them to make their own discoveries!

• Choose what to teach and when. Some situations require direct instruction (e.g., tying a shoe), others may not (e.g., how to play with a toy) and some situations may require some initial, gentle guidance (e.g., creating a collage).

Remember, learning should be fun, creative, and enjoyable – for both you and your child!

This blog was written by Dr. Jennifer Zosh, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine.

Featured Article:

Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N. D., Spelke, E., & Schulz, L. (in press). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition.

Interested in Learning More?

Csibra, G., & Gergely, G. (2009). Natural pedagogy. Trends in Cognitive Science, 13(4), 148-153.

 

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