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deliberate practice

Kids Start Self-Motivated, Deliberate Practice of Skills at 6

We all know practice is important for success at everything from tying shoelaces to reading and writing. (Although maybe not 10,000 hours of it…) But at what point in a child’s development does she become capable of deliberate practice, of her own accord? Age 6, according to a new study published in the journal Child Development.

Researchers tested 120 children ages 4 to 7 years. In the study, kids in one room were shown three games involving motor skills and told they would be tested on one of the games later and awarded stickers based on their performance. Children were then brought to a different room with replicas of the games they had seen in the first room and told they had five minutes to play before returning to the first room for the test. The researchers anticipated that children who understood that practice could help their future performance would spend more time playing the test game than the other two games. After playing, children were asked which game they played the longest and why, what they could do to improve on the games, and if they could explain what practice is.

Most 6- and 7-year-old kids explained what practice is and knew that it helps improve skill; most also played the test game longer than the other games with the aim of practicing for the test. Most 5-year-olds showed an understanding of practice as a concept and spent slightly longer playing the test game, though they couldn’t explain their choice to do so. And finally, most 4-year-old kids did not understand the concept of practice and did not spend more time on the test game than the other games.

Overall, these findings reveal clear improvements in kids’ deliberate practice from ages 4 to 7. These increases in understanding of and engagement in self-motivated, deliberate practice may be due to age-related development of cognitive capacities; the prefrontal cortex of the brain develops exponentially in year five, enabling children to assert certain skills like episodic foresight, or, the capacity to envision the future, which would allow a child to foresee the future utility of a skill; metacognition, or, the capacity to reflect on and monitor mental states; and executive functions, or, the cognitive processes that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, which play important roles in allowing children to monitor and control their own 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 Kana Imuta, a psychology researcher at the University of Queensland, who co-authored the study. “For example, out findings suggest that it may be beneficial to start having conversations with children as young as 6 about their future goals, and encourage them to think about and work toward those goals.”

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