Kids are doin' it for themselves!

Learning is what babies and toddlers do. They have so much to learn about the world that every interaction is a learning opportunity. They have to learn words, how objects work, how to interact with people, and what to eat. Decades of research has shown us that a great way for babies and toddlers to learn is through social learning, such as copying, or imitating, other people. For instance, toddlers learn how new objects work by watching what others do, and doing the same as them. Obviously, children need to learn new words from other people so that they can communicative effectively. Indeed, toddlers can learn a new word by listening to someone repeat it as little as three times.

However one aspect of learning that has not been explored in much depth is how children learn on their own. Parents, adults, and older children are not always available to show babies and toddlers how things work. Some kids might be independent and just prefer to learn on their own. Finally, by only learning from other people, children can’t learn things their elders don’t already know.

Recent research has shown that young children do have the capacity to learn and explore on their own. For instance, Simone Bijvoet-van den Berg and myself recently found that 2-year-olds can explore novel objects on their own. Children were given a novel box, with stairs, ledges, a hole, strings, etc., and five novel objects, such as a strange rubber spatula, to play with. We didn’t model any actions; instead, children just got to play. We found they performed on average 20 different action-box area combinations on their own. For instance, they might hit the spatula against the stairs, then “walk” the spatula down the stairs, then put the spatula through the hole, and so on. This shows that kids don’t need to be shown how things work – they can start to learn on their own too. Interestingly, not all kids were the same. Some kids came up with more actions than others.

Even babies can solve some basic problems on their own. Willatts set up a problem for 6 to 8 month olds. An attractive toy was placed on a cloth. The cloth was in reach of the infants, but the toy was out of reach. To get the toy, babies had to figure out that they should pull on the cloth. By 8 months, most infants were able to successfully solve this problem on their own.

While a few studies have shown us that babies and toddlers are capable or learning, exploring, and solving problems on their own, we still don’t know that much. That's why we are running the Early Learning Styles Survey this month, for anyone with a child between 0 and 47 months. We are interested in whether kids explore and solve problems on their own, and if so, how they go about doing. We want to hear from you whether or not your child is physically active yet, whatever country you are from, and whatever your child's type of development (e.g., typical, Down's syndrome, deaf, etc.) When lots of parents fill out lots of surveys, we can start to piece together when and why children develop their ability to deceive. Just register or login on our homepage at

· Dr Elena Hoicka is a Lecturer (equivalent to Assistant Professor) in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield, in England. Her research focuses on the early development of humour, pretending, deception, and learning.


Bijvoet-van den Berg, S., & Hoicka, E. (2014). Individual differences and age-related changes in divergent thinking in toddlers and preschoolers. Developmental Psychology50(6), 1629-1639.

Houston-Price, C., Plunkett, K. I. M., & Harris, P. (2005). ‘Word-learning wizardry’at 1; 6. Journal of Child Language32(01), 175-189.

Meltzoff, A. N. (1995). Understanding the intentions of others: Re-enactment of intended acts by 18-month-old children. Developmental Psychology31(5), 838-850.

Willatts, P. (1999). Development of means–end behavior in young infants: Pulling a support to retrieve a distant object. Developmental Psychology35(3), 651-667.