Kids as young as six practice skills for the future, study reveals

Practice makes perfect
Practice makes perfect Photo: Shutterstock

It's often said practice makes perfect, but now researchers have studied children to discover what age they embrace the skill of repetitive learning.

The University of Queensland study, published in the journal Child Development, tested 120 children aged between four and seven to learn more about when young children started unprompted practice.

And it found that children as young as six started to spontaneously practice skills to prepare for the future.

"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 Melissa Brinums, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland who led the study.

"It is one of only a small number of studies documenting age-related differences in children's future-oriented behaviour beyond the preschool period."

The researchers examined the behaviours of the kids, mostly from European-Australian, middle-to-upper-middle-class families, to assess their understanding of the term 'practice', how it helped them and if they themselves practiced.

Because of the lack of social and ethnic diversity in the sample of children, the authors noted that more research would be required to examine the impact of social factors such as socioeconomic status.

In the study, children were shown three games involving motor skills and told they would be tested on only one of them later - a target game. They were told they'd win stickers if they performed well. Children were then taken to a different room and told they could play with all three of the games for five minutes before returning to the original room to be tested on the target game.

Researchers wanted to discover if children would concentrate on playing just the target game so they could win more stickers.

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After playing, they were asked which games they played and why, what they could have done to improve on their technique, and if they could explain what practice was.

The results showed that most of the six and seven-year-olds had a good understanding of what practice meant. They spent much of their time playing the target game to prepare for the test and get stickers. While most five-year-olds played slightly longer with the target game than other games, they said they did so for reasons other than practice. And the four-year-olds played with all the games and did not understand the concept of practice.

Researchers said the results showed that as children grew older they developed a clearer understanding of the concept of practice and had greater initiative to engage in deliberate practice for future learning.

"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," said co-author Kana Imuta.

"For example, our findings suggest that it may be beneficial to start having conversations with children as young as six about their future goals, and encourage them to think about and work toward those goals.

"A focus on the future may help kids understand why practicing is so important."