Grant holder
Nicola Cutting, York St John University
Project status

This research investigated children’s ability to make tools to solve problems using a Froebelian framing to approach the problem under investigation

Project summary

Whilst many species make and use their own tools, it is only humans who have developed an abundance of complex tools that we use in almost every aspect of our lives. Two factors are thought to drive the development of our tool-rich world: faithful imitation, i.e., watching and copying how others make tools, and innovations or modifications (Legare & Nielsen, 2015). Most research has focused on social learning, and has demonstrated that humans are extremely faithful copiers (see Hoehl et al., 2019). There has been a smaller focus on innovations.

Work by Nicola Cutting and colleagues was the first to investigate children’s capacity for tool innovation. The team used a problem-solving paradigm that tasked children with fishing a bucket out of a tube to retrieve a reward contained inside (Beck et al,. 2011). Children were given materials such as pipe cleaners and string to solve the task, with the solution being to bend a pipe cleaner into a hook. Children found this task extremely difficult with children aged 5 rarely innovating a hook tool and only half of children succeeding by age 8. This finding has been replicated by several research teams across the world (Nielsen et al., 2014; Voigt et al., 2019) and has been shown to be a stable finding in western and non-western populations (Neldner et al., 2017).

To investigate how children’s innovations truly occur the researcher took a new direction from the more structured studies available and applied a Froebelian approach to this research. The key Froebelian principles of learning through play, respecting children as powerful learners who are motivated to explore and allowing freedom to do so (Tovey, 2016), sit neatly within Nicola’s current thinking about optimal environments to allow for innovation. With this research Nicola Cutting aimed to further and measure innovation during play rather than the artificial task environment, and measure innovation in collaboration with peers rather than as individuals.

Read the final report published in November 2023.

FT Capturing Childrens innovations the importance of play

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Download the final report