Why Exploring the Unknown Is So Alluring to Children

Systematic exploration helps young children discover how the world works.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

Dziurek/Shutterstock
Source: Dziurek/Shutterstock

"Still, 'round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. And though we pass them by today, tomorrow we may come this way; And take the hidden paths that run towards the Moon or to the Sun."  —J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings)

Systematic exploration helps children figure out how the world works and builds a foundation of knowledge they can use later in life, according to the authors of a new study (Blanco & Sloutsky, 2020) that investigated why exploration and uncertainty often seem to dominate young children's choices.

This research was conducted at The Ohio State University by Nathaniel Blanco and Vladimir Sloutsky. The findings were published online August 7 in the journal Developmental Science.

"Exploration seems to be a major driving force during early childhood—even outweighing the importance of immediate rewards," co-author Sloutsky, a professor of psychology at OSU, said in a news release. "We believe it is because young children need to explore to help them understand how the world works."

"When adults think of kids exploring, they may think of them as running around aimlessly, opening drawers and cupboards, picking up random objects," Sloutsky added. "But it turns out their exploration isn't random at all."

For this two-pronged study on exploration, the researchers recruited about three dozen 4- to 5-year-old children and an equal number of adults.

In the first experiment, children and adults each played a game that gave them the chance to win immediate rewards or to pass up instant rewards for an opportunity to continue exploring other options. Although most children were well aware of which choices would yield the biggest bonuses, they were less likely than adults to quickly maximize their haul of prizes (e.g., virtual candy) and more likely to continue exploring.

"The children were not motivated by achieving the maximum reward to the extent that adults were," Blanco said in the news release. "Instead, children seemed primarily motivated by the information gained through exploring."

A second experiment tested how adults and children responded to a game that gave players the option to choose the highest-valued prize right out of the gate or to choose a hidden option with an uncertain value. Adults only chose the unknown option about 2 percent of the time, whereas children chose the hidden option about 40 percent of the time. "The majority of the children were attracted to the uncertainty of the hidden option. They wanted to explore that choice," Sloutsky noted.

"Organisms need to constantly balance the competing demands of gathering information and using previously acquired information to obtain rewarding outcomes (i.e., the exploration‐exploitation dilemma)," the authors explain. "We conclude that while young children's immature top‐down control should hinder adult‐like systematic exploration, other mechanisms may pick up the slack." 

It appears that acquiring broad swaths of new information vis-à-vis systematic exploration builds a foundation of knowledge that children will rely on later in life. "Children's seemingly erratic behavior at this age appears to be largely molded by a drive to stockpile information," Blanco said.

Even when a child's exploration may seem haphazard or erratic at first glance, systematic patterns of exploration often dominate young children's decision-making processes; being methodical about how they explore things improves their odds of not missing anything. "Even though we knew that children like to run around and investigate things, we're now learning that there is a lot of regularity to their behavior," Sloutsky concluded.

References

Nathaniel J. Blanco and Vladimir M. Sloutsky. "Systematic Exploration and Uncertainty Dominate Young Children’s Choices." Developmental Science (First published online: August 07, 2020) DOI: 10.1111/desc.13026