Young children use physics to learn about tools, study

Children as young as seven apply basic laws of physics to problem-solving.


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Learning about causality – about the physical rules that govern the world around us – is a crucial part of our cognitive development. From our observations and the outcome of our own actions, we build an idea – a model – of which tools are functional for particular jobs, and which are not.

Now a new study found that instead of learning from previous rewards, young children seem to apply basic laws of physics to solve the problem. This study that was conducted by the scientists from the University of Cambridge actually relies on the Aesop’s fable The Crow and the Pitcher.

Dr. Lucy Cheke from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge said, “Imagine a situation where someone is learning about hammers. There are two hammers that they are trying out – a metal one and an inflatable one. Normally, the metal hammer would successfully drive a nail into a plank of wood, while the inflatable hammer would bounce off harmlessly.”

“But what if your only experience of these two hammers was trying to use the metal hammer and missing the nail, but using the inflatable hammer to successfully push the nail into a large pre-drilled hole? If you’re then presented with another nail, which tool would you choose to use? The answer depends on what type of information you have taken from your learning experience.”

“In this situation, a learner concerned with the outcome (a ‘reward’ learner) would learn that the inflatable hammer was the successful tool and opt to use it for later hammering. However, a learner concerned with physical forces (a ‘functionality’ learner) would learn that the metal hammer produced a percussive force, albeit in the wrong place, and that the inflatable hammer did not, and would, therefore, opt for the metal hammer.”

In this new study, scientists discovered what sort of data children extricate from circumstances where the significant physical qualities of a potential instrument are discernible, yet frequently inconsistent with whether the utilization of that apparatus by and by accomplished the coveted objective.

They volunteered children aged 4-11 with a task through which they must retrieve a floating token to earn sticker rewards. Each time, the youngsters were given a water container and a set of apparatuses to use to raise the level. This examination depends on a standout amongst the most acclaimed Aesop’s tales, where a thirsty crow drops stones into a pitcher to get to the water.

In this test, some of the tools were ‘functional’ and some ‘non-functional’. Functional tools were those that, if dropped into a standard compartment, would sink, raising the water level and bringing the token inside reach; non-functional tools were those that would not do as such, for instance since they drifted.

Be that as it may, once in a while the children utilized functional instruments to bring the level up in a spilling compartment. The water could never ascend sufficiently high to bring the token within reach, regardless of how functional the apparatus utilized.

At other times, the children were successful in retrieving the reward despite using a non-functional tool. After these learning sessions, the researchers presented the children with a ‘standard’ water container and a series of choices between different tools. From the pattern of these choices, the researchers could calculate what type of information was most influential on children’s decision-making: reward or function.

Elsa Loissel, co-first author of the study said, “A child doesn’t have to know the precise rules of physics that allow a tool to work to have a feeling of whether or not it should work. So, we can look at whether a child’s decision making is guided by principles of physics without requiring them to explicitly understand the physics itself.”

“We expected older children, who might have a rudimentary understanding of physical forces, to choose according to function, while younger children would be expected to use the simpler learning approach and base their decisions on what had been previously rewarded. But this wasn’t what we found.”

Scientists found that the information about reward was never a reliable predictor of children’s choices. Instead, the influence of functionality information increased with age – by the age of seven, this was the dominant influence in their decision making.

The study is published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.