The world is full of fascinating opportunities to learn. But with so many different topics for children to explore, why do they pick certain paths? In a new paper in Psychological Science, a team from Rutgers University looks closely at what drives children’s curiosity. They find that children are motivated to learn more about a topic when there is a gap in their knowledge that they want to fill. The results suggest that for young children there is a sweet spot for learning, when they already know enough to find a topic interesting, but not so much that it becomes boring.
In the first study, fifty children aged around five years old were assessed on their existing knowledge in three areas: biological transmission of illness, psychosomatic events, and theory of mind (understanding other people’s mental states). In the biological transmission domain, for example, children heard stories about a character who sneezed, and were asked whether a friend would also catch the illness, while in the psychosomatic domain they were asked if somebody’s cheeks could redden from embarrassment.
Next, participants were presented with choose your own adventure stories, where a character experienced a similar event to the one given in the knowledge assessment task and one that was irrelevant and unrelated. Participants then selected which event they wanted to hear the end of. In the biological transmission scenario, for example, participants read that a character had played with a friend with a cold. At the end of the story, the children were asked if they wanted to find out whether the character had picked up the cold or, instead, what he had for breakfast.
Based on their responses to the initial questions, children were classified as having either “mature” or “immature” levels of knowledge for each of the three areas. The team found that those with more knowledge showed no particular preference for either scenario when reading the story, but those with immature theories were more likely to select the ending that was related to the first part of the study.
This could be because the ending related to the first set of scenarios offered the children a chance to learn something new after their interest was initially piqued, the team suggests. Those who had a more mature understanding of the initial scenarios may have already known “too much” about them to find them particularly compelling, or were already certain enough about their knowledge to not feel the need to explore further.
The results were replicated in a second study, in which just 58% of children with mature theories chose the story ending related to the first part of the study, compared to 68% of those with immature theories (though the difference here was not significant). Interestingly, children who were in neither category, and instead were in an in-between group, transitioning from immature to mature theories, were far more likely to choose this option: 80% of children in this group selected the ending more closely related to the initial scenarios.
The results suggest that children use uncertainty when deciding what to learn about, the team says. When children are uncertain about things, they seek more information to resolve that uncertainty. This in turn informs their learning (and may go some way to explain why children often ask endless “Why?” questions).
The findings could help parents and teachers encourage children to learn more about particular topics, providing them with more information when they are at an intermediate stage of curiosity. Looking out for this particular knowledge gap, when interest is piqued, could be the starting point for further learning.