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Clare Whalley, an ESRC-funded PhD student, Dr Sarah Beck and Nicola Cutting (York St John University) have published a paper which explores children’s tool innovation and how this is affected by prior experiences.

The paper follows on from a famous study in which a New Caledonian crow named ‘Betty’ was able to bend a piece of garden wire to make a hook in order to retrieve a baited bucket from a narrow tube. This task and apparatus has been adapted and used to examine tool innovation in children, who up to now have shown surprisingly poor performance. However, unlike corvids, children have been given no opportunity to see or use the premade hook before attempting to solve the task independently.

This series of experiments gave children a pre-test experience more consistent with that experienced by corvids to enable fairer cross-species comparisons. They found that when children were able to use a premade hook, before being asked to innovate a solution of their own, they were significantly more likely to solve the problem.

The team were able to conclude that 4-7 year-old children perform at least as well as corvids on the hook-making task and that the most difficult aspect of tool innovation for children might be bringing to mind the solution independently.

The paper was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, which has open-access.

View the paper


Whalley, C.L., Cutting, N., & Beck, S.R. (2017) The effect of prior experience on children’s tool innovation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 161, 81-94.