Are Toddlers Really Smarter Than Five-Year-Olds?

An interesting National Public Radio (NPR) article I happened across recently made a bold claim in its title “Yes, Your Toddler Really Is Smarter Than a Five-Year-Old.” I happen to have a toddler myself, so articles such as this that relate psychology to various facets of parenting and child development are quick to grab my attention. This article goes on to discuss a study conducted at the University of California, Berkley studying cognitive development where children between the ages of 18 and 30 months were able to recognize the relationship two identical blocks had in causing a toy to play music. This demonstrates an important cognitive ability to determine casual relationships and use that information to guide actions, which is crucial for successful interaction with the world and demonstrates a propensity for higher-order thinking (Walker & Gopnik, 2014).

The original research conducted by Walker and Gopnik (2014) details the steps involved in carrying out this study, which I will briefly summarize here. In the training trial of this study, researchers introduced a new toy and three pairs of blocks to children ranging from ages 21 to 24 months. They demonstrated to the toddlers that each identical pair of blocks caused the toy to play music, but any one individual block did not. Researchers demonstrated this three times with each pair of blocks. In the next phase, the researcher placed a new block on top of the toy and presented the child with three additional blocks to select from to activate the toy: a new block that was the same as the one placed on the toy, a new block that was not the same as the one placed on the toy, and a familiar block from the training portion of the experiment. This process was repeated in two separate trials. Researchers found that children chose the correct matching block significantly more often than the other two blocks that were presented to them. Researchers also conducted a similar experiment with a broader age range (18 to 30 months) and found similar results.

How can psychology, specifically cognitive development, explain the eye-catching title of this article? Toddlers from about the age of 18 months onward can reason abstractly and detect patterns and relationships between objects in part because they lack the knowledge and experience necessary to focus on the more concrete details. On the other hand, older children have a tendency to focus on the characteristics and details of the objects themselves rather than the relationships between them (Walker & Gopnik, 2014). In this way, toddlers truly are smarter than five-year-olds, at least until children achieve a level of cognitive maturity that allows them to simultaneously detect patterns and relationships between objects as well as the characteristics and details of the objects themselves. As children mature and develop, they lose some of their ability to think abstractly, at least for a short period of time. Children in this study demonstrated an ability to engage in causal learning, which goes above associative learning to make inferences in completely new situations and interactions.

While I was able to track down and read the original journal article, the NPR source did a good job explaining the key findings and takeaways of the research in a way that was concise and easy to understand for those without training in cognitive psychology. I have always been interested in focusing on the child development aspect of psychology, both cognitively and behaviorally, in a future career. Being a parent has provided me the opportunity to observe so many of these psychological principles and milestones happening firsthand, which I find to be truly fascinating. Young children, even those who are for the most part too young to communicate verbally, are so much more intelligent and astute than we realize or give them credit for. This research study is the perfect example of that.

Walker, C.M., & Gopnik, A. (2014). Toddlers infer higher-order relational principles in causal learning. Psychological Science25(1), 161-169.