Early learning: children guide their own learning when learning slows
Photo provided by the author.

Early learning: children’s inattention is often smart

By Celeste Kidd and , | December 2018 

Children guide their own early learning. They look elsewhere when learning slows, either because they’ve mastered the material or it’s become too difficult. Inattention can aid child development.

Research shows that children capably guide their own early learning, concentrating on learning experiences that are useful and avoiding those that are not. Their choices are not rooted in novelty alone. They are strategic agents of child development, seeking opportunities likely to fit their cognitive capacities. Children don’t waste time on what they already know, or what is unknowable. They are experts in early learning and what they need for their own development.

Clinical problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can cause disengagement that hinders rather than helps learning. However, most inattention is good, reflecting efficient learning strategies.

Good inattention shouldn’t be corrected or pathologized. It can guide those who support children’s early learning. Educators should recognize that it casts a light on what children may or may not be ready to learn. They should take cues from the children themselves on, as children alone have full access to what they already know.

Infants are agents in their early learning

Our research shows that the link between children’s interest and their readiness to learn applies even in infancy. We’ve demonstrated that children look elsewhere in search of something different when they know enough about a toy, subject, or activity. They also disengage when a task is overly complex given their current knowledge, limited cognitive skills, and working memory.

“Most inattention in children is good, reflecting efficient early learning strategies.”

This is rational behavior. If you don’t expect you can learn, it’s smart to shift your gaze and seek enlightenment elsewhere.

Early years’ practice aims to develop children’s ‘school-readiness’, for which concentration is a valued skill. In this context, children’s inattention may be seen as a problem, indicating compromised executive function. Inattention alone, however, is insufficient evidence of an executive function deficit. Instead, children’s inattention may also indicate sound judgments about the suitability of the learning in context. Inattention can indicate that children’s surroundings don’t match what they need to make early learning progress.

Choice in early learning aids child development

It’s challenging to design a single educational environment for a group of children who enter a classroom with vastly different previous experience and knowledge about the world. If educators design environments for the children with the least knowledge, they can expect widespread disengagement among those who know the most, as their attentional systems are designed to disengage when they encounter redundant information.

Conversely, if educators appeal to the most knowledgeable, they risk widespread disengagement among those who know the least. These children’s attentional systems are designed to disengage from material that they’re not yet well situated to learn. Educators want to avoid such lost opportunities. But how?

A solution is to give children choices in their early learning. Choice lets children learn when they are ready and able. Exploring allows them to get the best out of themselves and their situations.

This doesn’t mean that every moment in an early childhood classroom must be free-play based. And children don’t require choice about every activity. It can be good for children to focus on activities together and to engage with each other. Taking turns and collaborating have benefits. Nevertheless, it’s important to give children considerable individualized early learning opportunities, especially in their first few years in school.

It’s also vital to recognise that a child’s inattention in a group-based activity may reflect a mismatch between that child’s current knowledge and the material. Don’t assume a child’s inattention is a mark of willful disobedience or a clinical problem.

Three additional aspects of children’s cognitive systems for acquiring new knowledge may also be useful for educators.

early learning

Photo: provided by author.

Even infants seek out material that is useful for early learning

Some of the most compelling evidence we have from my lab on children engaged in active early learning comes from eye-tracking studies with babies. We’ve shown that infants typically divert their gaze when viewing sequences that are either very expected or very surprising. The babies are most engaged by events that are a little bit, but not overly, surprising. We call this the “Goldilocks effect” in infant attention.

“Young children can and will take an active role in their own early learning. You can support them as they do so by recognizing that kind of “baby genius” and enabling it by providing them with choices in learning.”

These findings demonstrate that even infants’ attention is driven by their existing knowledge and their expectations. Specifically, they show that infants prefer absorbing information at an intermediate rate. This strategy prevents them from wasting time on material that offers them less early learning value.

The best attentional strategy depends upon a child’s working memory

Basic cognitive abilities, like working memory, shape exploration, learning, and play. The optimal exploration strategy shifts depending upon how much working memory a learner has available. The more working memory you have, the more objects of learning you can manage at one time. The less working memory you have, the more you must return to previously attended material to maintain your understanding.

Children have far less working memory than adults. There are also substantial individual differences in early learning across learners in general, even in the same age category. Thus we see big differences across age and individuals in how often learners need to return to material.

Children’s play patterns demonstrate these individual differences in working memory. The more working memory children have, the more complex their sequences of actions during play tend be.

Early learning through play aims to understand causal relationships

Children’s play is often motivated by discovery. Developmental scientists such as Elizabeth Bonawitz (Rutgers Newark), Hyo Gweon (Stanford), Alison Gopnik (Berkeley), and Laura Schulz (MIT) have demonstrated that children are intrigued by uncertainty, and they structure their play in ways that reduce it.

Children play longer with toys that violate their expectations, trying to understand the toys’ underlying causal mechanisms. This is true even in infancy. Young children play to figure out how things in the world work.

What is the takeaway from all of this? Infants and young children are more capable in guiding their own early learning than you might initially expect. So parents and educators, you can relax a little. Your children are not passive sponges, dependent entirely on you to put exactly the right things in front of them. Young children can and will take an active role in their own early learning. You can support them as they do so by recognizing that kind of ‘baby genius’ and helping it along by giving them choices in learning.


 Kidd C & Hayden BY (2015), The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity, National Center for Biotechnology Information

 Kidd C, Piantadosi ST & Aslin RN (2012), The Goldilocks Effect: Human infants allocate attention to visual sequences that are neither too simple nor too complex, PLOS ONE, 7.5

 Pelz M, Yung A & Kidd C (2015), Quantifying curiosity and exploratory play on touchscreen tablets, Proceedings of the IDC 2015 Workshop on Digital Assessment and Promotion of Children’s Curiosity

 Pelz M, Piantadosi ST & Kidd C (2015), The dynamics of idealized attention in complex learning environments, Proceedings of the Fifth Joint IEEE International Conference on Development and Learning and on Epigenetic Robotics

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