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Surprise! Babies Use Unusual Events as an Opportunity to Learn

There are so many things to learn when you're a baby. Who is that nice lady is with the milk? What are hands good for? How fast can someone come running when you cry? 

But researchers have known for some time that babies are not a completely blank slate. Scientists have measured the length of eye gaze in infants as young as 2 months old, and have shown that babies look longer at scenes that appear to violate physical principles of how the world works—for example, a ball that appears to pass through a solid wall. 

But what is the point of that surprise? Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore say that babies use these surprising events as an chance to learn more about the world. Confronted with a ball that appeared to pass through a solid wall in one experiment, babies tended to bang that ball against something as soon as they got their hands on it. And after seeing a toy car that appeared to float in midair, babies in the study dropped the toy car repeatedly, as if to figure out why that car defied what they know about gravity. They also ignored other toys in favor of the ball or toy car that appeared to behave in an unusual way.

The findings will appear in Thursday in the journal Science. 

Aimee E. Stahl, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins, and Lisa Feigenson, a professor of  psychological and brain sciences at the university, examined the behavior of 110 11-month olds, who were both old enough to pay attention a scene and to manipulate the objects of their curiosity in a directed way. 

The babies were shown a ball or a toy car rolliing down a ramp. For some of the children, the scene was manipulated in order to make it appear as if the toy had passed through a solid wall. The other children saw the toy stopped by a wall, as would be expected. In other experiments, babies were shown a car that appeared to roll off a table and hover, as well as cars that fell. The babies were given 10 seconds to observe the scene.

The researchers found that the infants learned about the unusual objects more quickly than about another, distractor toy. And they also played with the toy in ways that suggested they wanted to test why the object had behaved in such an unexpected fashion. This video shows some of the behaviors, as well as the experimental set-up:

So what does this mean for early learning? Teachers need not try to make objects levitate or pass through solid walls to hold onto childrens' attention, Feigenson said in an interview. But educators and researchers could examine whether children learn better when they're asked to make a prediction about an event and then test their ideas.

"Those might also be triggers for learning. I think that's an excellent direction for future research," she said. 

The research also raises the question of how well children can learn when an event is not impossible, but merely rare or improbable. "Do those also provide children or young learners with opportunities to learn? That's a question we're working on now," she said. 

Related stories:

 for the latest news on policies, practices, and trends in early childhood education. 

Video courtesy of Johns Hopkins University

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