Preschoolers' brains don't plan ahead

A new study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that preschoolers brains don’t work the same way as the brains of adults. While this might not surprise parents, previous research on cognitive development has considered kids to be basically the same as adults, but with weaker skills. Adults take in information and use it proactively; for example, if adults hear about a traffic jam on their way to work, they can plan an alternate route; preschoolers seem to take in the information and then recall it and use it only when it’s needed.

The study included both 8 year-olds and 3.5 year-olds who played a computer game. The participants were told that Blue (from Blue’s Clues) likes watermelon, so they should click a happy face if they see a picture of Blue and then a picture of a watermelon. If a picture of Spongebob Squarepants was followed by a watermelon, the children were told to click on a frowning face. Using reaction time and measuring the children’s pupil size (a process called pupillometry that indicates mental effort), researchers found that the older children could anticipate their answer upon seeing the character, the same way that an adult would. The preschoolers, however, did not anticipate. Instead, they waited until they saw the watermelon and then exerted mental effort to recall the character that had been shown previously.

What are the implications of these results? In a report on the study pulished at Science Daily, Christopher Chatham (one of the researchers) had this to say:

“For example, let’s say it’s cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think ‘OK it’s cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm,’ ” said Chatham. “But what we suggest is that this isn’t what goes on in a 3-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.”

In other words, when you tell your preschooler something, and they seem not to pay attention to what you’ve said, they may be storing the information for later use. Perhaps parents should be careful not to expect their young children to be able to plan ahead. It might be helpful to give them reminders to be used later, or to do the planning for them!

What do you think?

You can read the Science Daily Article here.

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