Little is known about when children begin practicing various skills without being prompted, even though this type of deliberate practice is critical for cultivating basic skills and expertise. Researchers at the University of Queensland have now broken new ground on this subject. Their investigation has found that children begin spontaneously practicing skills to prepare for their future at age 6.
“Our study contributes to our understanding of how young children start to regulate their own learning to achieve their long-term goals, as well as the development of the cognitive processes that allow people to acquire a range of general skills and highly specialized expertise throughout life,” said lead author Melissa Brinums. “It is one of only a small number of studies documenting age-related differences in children’s future-oriented behavior beyond the preschool period.”
The research team set out to determine when children begin to engage in practice on their own, and also wanted to examine what kids understand about practice. They recruited 120 participants between the ages 4 and 7 and set up two rooms for their experiment.
In the first room, the children were taught three games and told they would be later be tested on one game in particular, a target game. The children were then placed in the second room which also contained the games they had just learned. They were told they had five minutes to play before they would be brought back to the first room for their test.
The researchers expected that children who understood the importance of practice would spend more time playing the target game in their free time to prepare for the test. After playing in the second room, the children were asked which game they played the longest and why. They were also asked to explain practice.
Most of the 6-7 year olds were able to describe what practice is and were aware that it helped to improve their skills. Most of the children in this category also played the target game longer and acknowledged that they were practicing for the test.
The majority of 5-year-olds showed an understanding of practice and spent a little more time playing the target game. However, this group did not convey to the researchers that they spent more time on the target game in order to practice for the test. In addition, most 4-year-olds did not understand the concept of practice and did not spend more time playing the target game.
“By providing insight into children’s understanding of practice and the age at which they start to practice for the future with and without prompting, our study may help caregivers and teachers structure age-appropriate learning activities for children,” explained study co-author Kana Imuta.
The research is published in the journal Child Development.