Now, scientists say a preschooler's way of thinking -- having more flexible and less biased ideas about cause and effect -- can help them outperform adults in figuring out how unusual toys and gadgets work.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, presented college students and preschoolers with an unusual game they named "Blickets." By placing certain clay shapes (cylinders, spheres, cones, squares, etc.) on a red-topped box, the player could cause the box to light up and play music. The different shapes -- either as a combination or on their own -- that activated the machine were called "blickets." The young players were better at predicting which objects or combination of objects were blickets.
The researchers' findings were recently published in the journal Cognition.
"As far as we know, this is the first study examining whether children can learn abstract cause and effect relationships, and comparing them to adults," said Alison Gopnik, senior author of the study and developmental psychologist at UC Berkeley.
Specifically, kids were better able to pick out blickets as the unusual patterns and circumstances that cause the box to light up changed on the fly. Researchers say their findings prove that in certain learning situations, children are better able to entertain abstract reasoning.
Whereas adult players focused on the logic and patterns of previous combinations, kids were able to react more quickly to the game's changing framework.
The children were not doing this consciously, but researchers hypothesis that preschoolers and kindergartners instinctively follow Bayesian logic, a concept of evidential probability
"One big question, looking forward, is what makes children more flexible learners -- are they just free from the preconceptions that adults have, or are they fundamentally more flexible or exploratory in how they see the world?" said Christopher Lucas, a lecturer at Edinburgh and the lead author of the study. "Regardless, children have a lot to teach us about learning."