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An experiment has demonstrated that awestruck four- to five-year-olds explore things in more ways, prompting the researchers to recommend further work on how to stimulate awe in children as a method to improve early learning.
Awe is a natural response to ‘larger than life’ events. Two things characterise an experience of awe: a perception of the world’s vastness and an inability to assimilate new information.
In the experiment, 91 four- and five-year-olds were shown one of three animal videos. The first was an “awe” video – clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth. The second was a “happy” video – clips of animals doing funny things from the BBC’s A Walk on the Wildside. The third was a “calm” video – small animals living normally in nature.
After watching one of these videos, the children were asked to complete a ‘smallness of self’ task that involved selecting from a series of differently sized circles in response to the question, “Let’s think about the video we just watched. Could you take this pointer and show me which circle best shows how big or small you feel right now?”
Next the children were presented with an early learning task. An adult demonstrated and then gave them a toy that makes a noise. The child’s interaction with the toy was observed and measured.
Children who had watched the “awe” video were likely to explore the toy with more variability than were children who watched the other videos, though only by a small margin. Meanwhile, children who selected smaller circles (who felt smaller and were more awestruck) explored the toy with more variability by a larger margin.
Earlier research has shown that experiences of uncertainty stimulate learning in young children – when they are surprised by something or encounter a counterintuitive cause-and-effect incident. Meanwhile, awestruck adults have been shown to have greater awareness of their own ignorance, a stronger interest in the world around them and a stronger motivation to learn. Being awestruck has also been found to be associated with a variety of different perspectives – more interest in volunteering to help others, more patience, more open-mindedness, less certainty about decisions and more ability to shift awareness from day-to-day concerns to wider matters.
The researchers conclude, “While play may be awesome, we believe awe can also be playful.”
Colantonio JA & Bonawitz E (2018), Awesome play: Awe increases preschooler’s exploration and discovery. In Kalish C, Rau M, Zhu J & Rogers TT (Eds.), Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society