Learning About How Young Children Learn

Research by Tamar Kushnir in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University sheds light on how young children learn about cause and effect through everyday experiences. 

Young children are naturally curious about cause and effect, and are naturally motivated to learn all about the “hows” and “whys” of the world. “Babies and children are like little scientists. They gather evidence by observing and experiencing the world,” Kushnir says.  While playing with dolls, searching through a toy box, or banging blocks together in a seemingly haphazard manner, they’re actually engaging in a quite rational process of making hypotheses, evaluating statistical data, and dismissing prior beliefs when presented with stronger evidence.  They also display remarkable psychological intuition and, by observing the actions of other people, can determine underlying motivations, desires and preferences.

While early childhood cognition has traditionally been studied separately from social context, Kushnir’s research brings these strands together.  Children learn about people from statistical information and they in turn evaluate evidence in light of their developing social knowledge, in an ongoing, reinforcing cycle.

By the time children are in preschool, they already understand a lot about other people’s desires, preferences, beliefs and emotions. But how do they learn about these internal motivations? It is generally thought that children pick up this knowledge from emotional cues such as facial expressions. But Kushnir’s recent work demonstrates that children can use statistics to figure out another person’s preference. Read the full outreach publication