Toddlers Learn to Use ‘Tools’ Without as Much Parental Help as You May Think

How toddlers can use these 'tools' to figure out everyday problems – and how parents can encourage them to do so.

From hammers to hairbrushes, humans have figured out ingenious devices to tackle everyday problems. They’re called tools. And toddlers are pretty good at figuring out how to use simple ones without outside help – like great apes.

That’s what a recent UK study of tykes ages 2-3 1/2 found. It bucks the “popular belief that basic tool use in humans requires social learning,” researchers said in a statement.

So what does this mean for parents, and how should they introduce “tools” to tots?

Why it’s neat

First, a bit about the study. It pitted 50 toddlers against 12 problem-solving tasks – actually based on stuff apes do in the wild (so the tasks weren’t familiar). In each case, they knew they could use a stick-like tool to do things like, say, remove balls of Play-Doh from a tube. For 11 tasks, tykes puzzled out solutions in one to three minutes.

“Children that age actually tend to try to solve these problems with their hands,” lead researcher Eva Reindl, with the University of Birmingham’s psychology department, tells Metro Parent. Therefore, the whole concept of using a stick as a tool “is already quite an achievement” for these young children, she adds.

That said, Reindl wasn’t surprised. Here at home, neither is Stacy Santamaria, early childhood coordinator at Warren Woods Early Childhood Center.

“It’s kind of what we already knew,” she says. “I think (the skills picked up in the study) are totally acceptable, developmentally, for that age group.”

Outside the ‘toolbox’

When choosing tools for your child to explore, reach for those that help build fine motor skills – which will be key in kindergarten, Santamaria says. “Paper clips, toy hammers, toy tools and other things like that can help,” she says. “Cutting” activities are also great: Use a safe plastic tool to model putty into different shapes. Or, for another fun game, have kids pick up pompoms with a clothespin.

Get creative playing outside, too. “Leaves and twigs can be good tools, after all,” Reindl notes, “as the research on great apes shows.”

Encourage experimenting

If your child asks for help, encourage creative thinking and allow her to try different ways of solving the task on her own, first. “Let the children explore,” Reindl suggests. “Children are really good at learning from others, and since adults are so prone to show children how the world works, children sometimes have relatively little space to explore on their own.”

If your child is having trouble, though, it’s OK to step in and help after they’ve tried. Communication helps you find that balance, says Santamaria. “It all depends on the child,” she says. “If some modeling needs to be done, that’s fine.”

Art by Mary Kinsora


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