How babies learn

We use exciting new techniques to find out what makes babies and toddlers tick. Below we explain how what children do tells us about what they’re learning, and the techniques we use to record their behaviour.

Babies like to look at new things

Children are always interested in something. Anyone looking after a baby will have seen them staring intently at something that, as adults, we don’t find interesting at all. This apparently baffling behaviour is actually very clever. Since the 1960s researchers have known that babies will spend longer looking at things that are new to them. This is known as the novelty preference. For example, researchers showed 3-month-old babies a series of pictures of individual cats (spoiler: this is one of Katie’s favourite studies!) After a few minutes, they showed babies a new picture – a cat and a dog – and timed how long babies looked at each picture for. The researchers showed that babies showed more interest in the dog picture than the cat picture. This is an amazing finding: even at three months, babies can learn enough in a few minutes to notice what’s new. This novelty preference extends to toddlerhood too, and goes some way to explaining why we can use a new toy to distract babies who are about to burst into tears: they’re curious about new things.

Children are active learners

constructionThere’s more to it than that, though. Babies and toddlers don’t just passively absorb information. They look, roll, crawl, toddle, and reach. They actively examine the things they see, put things in their mouths to learn about objects, bang toys together, even throw them (for pioneering research in motor development, see Karen Adolph’s Infant Action Lab at New York University). This behaviour, while sometimes frustrating if it involves a plate of food at dinner time, is how they learn. Recently, researchers have begun to explore this real-world behaviour to try to understand how what babies and toddlers do affects what they learn. At the Curiosity Project, we are interested in whether children know what kind of thing they need to learn from, and actively seek it out.

Children don’t see what adults see

Whyu_smith_pereiraen an adult sits at their kitchen table holding a mug of tea, they might see the mug, the tabletop, a fruit bowl, the chairs around the table, their baby in their high chair, and the toy train their baby is holding. For decades we’ve assumed that that’s what babies and toddlers see too. Recent research by Linda Smith and Chen Yu at Indiana University has turned this on its head: what babies see is very different. When a baby holds an object, that object looks much bigger to them than it would to an adult, and blocks out other objects that an adult might see. At the same kitchen table, then, the baby might only see the toy train they’re holding, with the chairs and tabletop peeping into the edges of their field of vision. And the reason? Babies have short arms! Objects they’re holding look bigger because they hold them closer to their faces. This is a hugely exciting discovery: babies learn from what they see, but what they see is not what adults see. The message: to understand how babies learn, we need to see things from their point of view.

The Curiosity Project: a new step (toddle?) forwards

So far, then, developmental research has shown us that babies and toddlers are interested in new things, which tells us something about what they’ve learned. We also know that they can play an active role in their own learning, which tells us they can shape the learning events they experience. Finally, we know that what they see is not what adults see, which shows that we need to understand learning from their point of view. The Curiosity Project brings these three perspectives together for a new understanding of early learning, by exploring how babies and toddlers explore based on their own curiosity. To find out how we do this, read more about our studies.