Sometimes it seems like we don’t give little kids enough credit: They may say the darndest things, but they also understand that sometimes it’s nicer to lie. They may not be the best at things like sharing or taking turns, but they also get real, pure joy from helping other people. And as Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, recently explained in The Wall Street Journal, they’re a lot more attuned to the world around them than we think they are.
In a forthcoming study in the journal Psychological Science that Gopnik highlighted, researchers recruited two groups of volunteers — one composed of adults and the other of 4- and 5-year-olds — and presented them with several pictures of red and green shapes, instructing them to focus only on the red ones. As a next step, the authors showed the participants a slightly different set of images and asked them to identify which ones had changed and which had stayed the same.
The results: When it came to the red shapes — the ones they’d been instructed to focus on — adults were more likely than kids to notice any changes. But for the green shapes in the background, the opposite was true: Kids were significantly better at picking up on any changes from one round to the next. It’s not that kids are bad at noticing things, as Gopnik wrote; it’s that they notice different things than adults do:
We often say that young children are bad at paying attention. But what we really mean is that they’re bad at not paying attention, that they don’t screen out the world as grown-ups do. Children learn as much as they can about the world around them, even if it means that they get distracted by the distant airplane in the sky or the speck of paper on the floor when you’re trying to get them out the door to preschool. Grown-ups instead focus and act effectively and swiftly, even if it means ignoring their surroundings.
Kids, in other words, haven’t yet learned what to tune in and what to tune out. It’s a trait that may work against them in some ways, but also leaves them open to sights and experiences that we’ve long since taught ourselves to miss.