If It's "Just Right," Babies Will Learn

Babies learn best when selecting situations not too complex or not too simple

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Goldilocks Baby tried the calculus problem but thought "Too hard!" She tried picking up a block. "Too easy!" She settled on putting rings on a post. "Just right!" And so babies learn.

The story of Goldilocks is more than a fairy tale when it comes to how children learn.

According to a new study, babies choose what activities to focus on in the same way that Goldilocks chose her porridge and beds.

"Provide your child with a range of easy and difficult toys."

Lead author Celeste Kidd of the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in New York and colleagues used eye-tracking and mathematical models to assess how babies learn.

They found that babies are looking for situations that are not too complex, but not too simple… that are just right for what they are developmentally capable of learning.

Kidd's team measured the complexity of certain tasks using probability in a video that sometimes showed surprising events. In the video, certain fun or familiar objects "appeared" from colorful boxes in a random order and location.

The more surprising or unexpected the appearance was compared to previous appearances, the more complex it was said to be.

The researchers showed the videos to 72 babies, aged 7 and 8 months, in dozens of short trials.

For the study, the babies sat in a darkened room on the lap of their parent. The parents listened to music on headphones and had a visor covering their eyes so they could not inadvertently affect their child's choices during the trial.

Meanwhile, an eye-tracking device attached to the TV measured where the babies' eyes looked.

If they continued to look at the TV, the mysteriously appearing objects continued to mysteriously appear. If they looked away, the video stopped.

The babies learned early in the trial that they had the power to control the continuation of the video by their decision to continue looking at it.

The researchers found that the babies lost interest pretty quickly if the video's surprises became too predictable. But when the videos became more complex, when the appearance of objects was too random and confusing, the babies also looked away.

"The study suggests that babies are not only attracted by what is happening, but they are able to predict what happens next based on what they have already observed," said Kidd. "They are not passive sponges. They are active information seekers looking for the best information they can find."

They hope that their findings might help develop better diagnostic tools for ADHD, autism and other developmental or mental disorders.

They don't hope, however, that their study will make parents feel obligated to find the precise right toys to stimulate their little ones just enough but not too much. Simply playing with what's around the house and with other children is just right too.

"Parents don't need to buy fancy toys to help their children learn," Kidd said. "They make the best use of their environment. They are going to look around for what fits their attention level. Kids learn best from social interaction."

The study appeared online May 23 in the journal PLoS ONE. The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the J.S. McDonnell Foundation. Two of the authors received support from Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 25, 2012
Last Updated:
August 15, 2012