Young kids learn to be smart and flexible early in life although they are not really aware of what they are doing, new research has indicated.
Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and human development and the director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State, said that the findings go against one prominent theory that says children can only show smart, flexible behaviour if they have conceptual knowledge - knowledge about how things work.
"Children have more powerful learning skills than it was thought previously. They can show evidence of flexible learning abilities without conceptual knowledge and without being aware of what they learned," he said.
In the study, Sloutsky and his colleague had several groups of 4- and 5-year-olds participate in several experiments.
In all of these experiments, children played a guessing game that involved choosing objects on a computer screen.
The game was played either in the upper right corner on the computer screen (with a yellow background) or in the lower left hand corner of the computer screen (with a green background).
The kids were shown one object and told it had a smiley face behind it. They then guessed which of the other two objects also had a smiley face behind it.
In each case, one of the other objects had the same colour but different shape as the original, while the other had the same shape but a different colour.
The key was that when the game was in the upper right corner of the computer screen, the smiley face was always hidden behind the same-shaped item.
When the game was presented in the lower left corner, the smiley face was hidden behind the item with the same colour.
Some children were given training: after making a guess, they were told whether they were correct or not. These children soon learned where to find the smiley face.
Later, during testing, these kids had no trouble correctly guessing where the smiley face was hidden, even though no feedback was given during the actual test.
However, Sloutsky said, 'these children were not aware of what they learned. They didn't know how they were making the correct choices."
In several related experiments, the researchers tested whether children discovered the 'rules' of this game - that shape was important when the game was played in the upper-right corner of the screen, and colour was important when it was played in the lower-left corner- and whether they could follow the rule on their own.
The answer was that they did not figure out the rule or know how to use it.
Sloutsky said kids in the experiments didn't know the rules, but simply used associative learning - they figured out that in certain areas of the computer screen, they were better off choosing by shape, and in other areas by colour.
"Children developed a running statistic about where they should choose colour and where they should choose shape," he said.
He said that the findings have implications for theories of how children learn and develop their cognitive abilities.
"Children learn implicitly. They don't need complex conceptual knowledge to show evidence of smart, flexible behaviour," he said.
The study is published in the current issue of the journal Child Development.