On October 25th, 2017 we learned about

Identifying the age when kids can appreciate the purpose of practice

I feel like quite the broken record these days, endlessly reminding┬ámy kids that the best way to get better at something, from singing to swimming, is to practice. The more times you do a cartwheel, for example, the more your brain can reinforce the nuances that make on cartwheel more successful than the previous, requiring less concentration for future attempts. Of course, while I’ve gotten a lot of practice talking about how this works, the quick “I know, Daddy” replies make me wonder if my efforts are having much effect. If I stopped with the supposed pep-talks about persevering, would the kids ever come to these conclusions themselves?

A study from Australia looked at that idea from the perspective of children’s ages. They wanted to know if there was a developmental threshold for kids to understand that practicing skills could benefit them in the future. Or, even if they didn’t get it on a conscious level, would they still try to practice without being specifically told to do so?

The experiment started with a single child and three games. Each game required some specific motor skills to play, and the kids were told that they’d be tested one specific game in the near future with the chance to win stickers if they did well. They were then shown to another room where three replicas of the first games were waiting. At that point, the kids were left to their own devices for five minutes, knowing they’d soon be headed back to the first set of games for their test. With all these elements in place, the question was then which replica game each kid would choose to spend their time on.

Building skills at age four versus six

As you might expect, six- and seven-year-olds showed the most interest in preparation for their upcoming test. While all the replica games were inspected, older kids spent more time playing with the replica that corresponded to the test game later. When asked about this explicitly afterwards, these kids all seemed aware of their choices, and how they expected to do better as a result. To really drive the deliberate nature of their plans home, these kids could generally give solid definitions of what practicing is and why someone would do it, undoubtedly making their parents’ day in the process.

Understanding that preparing for a challenge with practice was a sensible option scaled with each kid’s age. Five-year-olds played with the game that would help them practice the skills they needed more than the others, but they couldn’t consciously elaborate on why, claiming that the game was selected for other reasons. Four-year-olds missed the setup entirely, showing no preference for the game that they’d be tested on. This gradient didn’t really surprise researchers, as it fits with other child development milestones like metacognition and episodic foresight, wherein a child can imagine specific outcomes based on a given scenario.

Confirming behavior patterns most parents and teachers are aware of may not be terribly sensational, but it should help educators design tasks and challenges that are better suited to young kids. Talking about future goals may not be the best strategy with a four-year-old, but a lesson or activity for six-year-olds should be fine.

My third grader said: Maybe the five-year-olds really didn’t understand practice. Maybe they picked the right game because the scientists were using the best toy and the kids just liked it more.

That’s a pretty fair concern, and presumably the experiment could be designed where the designated “test game” was picked at random for each child so that one game wouldn’t stand out over all the others in every trial. Along those lines, I wonder if the act of an authority figure simply pointing out which game would be tested primed the five-year-olds’ interest, making it stand out to them for reasons they didn’t really understand.

Then again, when I asked my own four-year-old about practice before he heard this story, he was able to say that it was “doing something so that you get better at it,” which means younger kids can get the concept, or at least listen carefully enough to have an idea about it.

Source: Starting at age 6, children spontaneously practice skills to prepare for the future, Science Daily

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