BOX 4.4 Solving a Problem

Children 18 to 36 months of age are given nesting cups to play with (DeLoache et al., 1985b; see also Karmiloff-Smith and Inhelder, 1974, on children balancing blocks). Five plastic cups are dumped on a table in front of a child, who is simply told, “These are for you to play with.” Although the children have previously seen the cups nested together, there was no real need for them to attempt to nest the cups themselves; they could easily have stacked them, made an imaginary train, pretended to drink from them, etc. However, the children immediately started trying to fit the cups together, often working long and hard in the process.

Overall, in their spontaneous manipulations of a set of nesting cups, very young children progress from trying to correct their errors by exerting physical force without changing any of the relations among the elements, to making limited changes in a part of the problem set, to considering and operating on the problem as a whole. This “developmental” trend is observed not only across age, but also in the same children of the same age (30 months) given extensive time to play with the cups.

Most important, the children persist, not because they have to, or are guided to, or even because they are responding to failure; they persist because success and understanding are motivating in their own right.

in isolation. Infants’ activities are complemented by adult-child relationships that encourage the gradual involvement of children in the skilled and valued activities of the society in which they live. Research has shown that learning is strongly influenced by these social interactions. In fact, studies of interactions of drug-abusing mothers and their infants show how the absence of these critical learning interactions depresses 3- and 6-month-old infants’ learning (Mayes et al., 1998).

Parents and others who care for children arrange their activities and facilitate learning by regulating the difficulty of the tasks and by modeling mature performance during joint participation in activities. A substantial body of observational research has provided detailed accounts of the learning interactions between mothers and their young children. As an illustration, watch a mother with a 1-year-old sitting on her knees in front of a collection of toys. A large part of her time is devoted to such quietly facilitative and scene-setting activities as holding a toy that seems to require three hands to manipulate, retrieving things that have been pushed out of range, clearing away those things that are not at present being used in order to provide the child with a sharper focus for the main activity, turning toys so

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