The tripod which was presented to children in the demonstration conditions

Researchers from the University of Birmingham have published a study in Scientific Reports in which they investigate whether young children can copy a material cultural product that they themselves are not yet able to invent on their own. 

Lead author Eva Reindl, PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology said: “There is a lot of research on children’s social learning in a technological context, for example how children learn to use simple tools or to operate a puzzle box from demonstrations. However, what had to be learned in these tasks was something that individual children could likely also invent on their own. Our study is the first to investigate whether and how young children learn about a technological product that they could not have invented by themselves.”

Reindl and colleagues adapted a tower construction task that was previously used with adults. They initially asked 4- to 6-year-old individual children to build something as tall as possible from sticks and plasticine – entirely on their own. Based on these data, the researchers created a material product (a three-legged tower) that the children had never invented on their own. Then they tested new groups of children, again asking them to build something as tall as possible. Crucially, these children did have the opportunity to learn from an example; one group of children saw the experimenter build the tripod, and a second group saw a ready-made tripod.

Results showed that both demonstration groups not only built taller towers, but that children in both groups actually copied the tripod. The study shows for the first time that young children can copy a technological product that is still beyond their inventive abilities and that children can do so even without seeing somebody build the product (seeing the product was enough).

Reindl explains: “Our material culture, i.e., our ability to create tools, technology, clothing, vehicles, and buildings has allowed our species to live in almost every habitat on earth and to even reach beyond our planet. This is because of our capacity to faithfully transmit skills and knowledge across generations and to gradually add further improvements – the knowledge on how to build, say, a train is not inbuilt in our brains. This process produces cultural products that are beyond the inventive capacity of any single individual. However, it is not fully understood yet which social learning mechanisms are involved when acquiring a technological culture-dependent trait nor when the ability to do so emerges in childhood.”

“The next step in our research is to investigate whether children can also produce material design of similar complexity when working together, rather than just copying it from adults. More research is under way.”

View the paper