Show Don’t Tell–Kids

[I]n a new study by Elizabeth Bonawitz from University of California, Berkeley. Through two experiments with pre-schoolers, Bonawitz has found that teaching can be a “double-edge sword”. When teachers provided specific instructions about a new toy, children learned how to play with it more efficiently. But the lessons also curtailed their exploratory streak. They were less likely to play with the toy in new ways. Ultimately, they failed to find all of its secrets.


Bonawitz presented 4-6 year olds with a brightly coloured toy that had various appendages which squeaked, played music, and other interesting things. When the children were left with the toy, they discovered all its functions. The same thing happened if Bonawitz played with it or if she began to talk about the toy and then “forgot” something she had to do and left the room.

But if she taught the children one function of the toy, they assumed that was all there was to it, and in the main didn’t discover anything else about it or use it in the creative ways they did if left to their own devices.

This isn’t only true of young children, from my experience. I’ve noticed that my kids, ages 9 and 12 now, fearlessly explore the uses (and occasionally abuses!) of new devices. This can be a bit scary for me when the device is a sewing machine that is pounding a small sharp object up and down at high velocity.

But I am amazed at the creativity, inventiveness and fearlessness of my children when allowed to explore the sewing machine, the computer, and even old fashioned tools like hammer and pliers.

There is a lesson here for me. Actually there are two. The first lesson is “Hands off, Mom” The second is, “Don’t feel guilty for being too busy to instruct.” They just need to be let at it. I just need to let them.

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5 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell–Kids

  1. I haven’t–thanks so much for the link, Mary.

  2. This reminds me so much of my son when he was little. No matter what the toy was, he never wanted to play with it the orthodox way. I remember trying to introduce him to board games, and after we’d played it once, he sat back on his heels and said ‘And what else does it do?’ I sort of despaired, but at the same time I could see that it was creativity in a very pure form.

  3. You post such interesting things for teachers! I don’t teach young children (thank heavens!), but I can see the applicability for older people as well — don’t tell them how to solve a problem right away; instead, give them time to figure it out for themselves.

  4. Litlove, my kids were the same way. That reminds me of a picture book my kids loved. I think it was called Ted, and involved playing Monopoly-Twister.

    Dorothy, this evening, I was shopping with my older d (12) and after we’d got her new shoes, she wanted to browse the Apple store. I watched her fooling around with an Ipod touch, thinking of this study.

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