How do children learn? Is it true that they believe everything an adult tells them? A team of researchers from the University of Toronto and Harvard University has tried to answer these questions to analyze why the little ones look for information when faced with a surprising response from an adult.

From the time they are born, children learn by observing and experimenting with the environment around them and, above all, of what the reference figures tell them, such as their parents or teachers. But do they always agree with the statements of adults?

Do they try to verify the claims of adults?

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“Research shows that as children get older, they become more skeptical of what adults tell them”emphasizes Samantha Cottrell, a senior fellow at the Child Learning and Development (ChiLD) Laboratory at the University of Toronto.

“This explains why older children are more likely to try to verify claims and are more intentional about their exploration of objects,” add in a statement. Therefore, through two previously registered studies, the researchers set out to clarify whether children explore surprising claims and why.

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The first study involved 109 children between the ages of four and six and was conducted between September 2019 and March 2020. All of them were shown three objects: a stone, a sponge-like material, and a hacky sack.

The first step consisted of the questions of one of the researchers: “Do you think this rock is hard or soft?” All the children said that the rock was hard. After, children were randomly selected to say something that contradicted their beliefs or to confirm that intuition that it was tough. Once this was done, they were asked again.

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“Almost all of the children who heard statements that aligned with their beliefs continued to make the same judgment as before,” they note. The participants were then left alone in a room to observe the object. The researchers found that most, regardless of age, were dedicated to testing these claims. “It could also be that with increasing age, the motivation behind children’s exploration changes.”

“There’s still a lot we don’t know”

For the second study, 154 children aged 4 to 7 years participated and were shown eight vignettes. For each, they were told what an adult had confirmed, such as “sponge is harder than rock.” The results indicate that older children were more likely to suggest an exploration strategy tailored to the statement. In the previous case, for example, touch the rock and the sponge to see which one is harder.

The results also show that with increasing agechildren increasingly justify exploration as a means of verifying the adult’s surprising claim.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” says Samuel Ronfard, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and laboratory director at the Child Learning and Development (ChiLD) Laboratory. “But what is clear is that children do not believe everything they are told. They think about what they’ve been told, and if they’re skeptical, they look for additional information that might confirm or refute it.”