Young children spontaneously invent three different types of associative tool use behaviour

Eva Reindl, Claudio Tennie, Ian Apperly, Zsuzsa Lugosi, Sarah Beck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Downloads (Pure)


Associative Tool Use (ATU) describes the use of two or more tools in combination, with the literature further differentiating between Tool set use, Tool composite use, Sequential tool use and Secondary tool use. Research investigating the cognitive processes underlying ATU has shown that some primate and bird species spontaneously invent Tool set and Sequential tool use. Yet studies with humans are sparse. Whether children are also able to spontaneously invent ATU behaviours and at what age this ability emerges is poorly understood. We addressed this gap in the literature with two experiments involving preschoolers (E1, N = 66, 3 years 6 months to 4 years 9 months; E2, N = 119, 3 years 0 months to 6 years 10 months) who were administered novel tasks measuring Tool set, Metatool and Sequential tool use. Participants needed to solve the tasks individually, without the opportunity for social learning (except for enhancement effects). Children from 3 years of age spontaneously invented all of the types of investigated ATU behaviours. Success rates were low, suggesting that individual invention of ATU in novel tasks is still challenging for preschoolers. We discuss how future studies can use and expand our tasks to deepen our understanding of tool use and problem-solving in humans and non-human animals.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere5
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank all nurseries, Thinktank Birmingham science museum, parents and children for their help and participation, Alice Coombes and Charlotte Wilks for assistance with data collection and for reliability coding, Lauren Cooper for assistance with data collection, Nuria Melisa Morales Garc?a ( for the drawings of the apparatuses, and the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. Ethical approval was granted by the University of Birmingham, UK, STEM Ethical Review Committee.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press.


  • Associative tool use
  • Metatool use
  • Multifunctional tool use
  • Problem-solving
  • Sequential tool use
  • Tool set use
  • Tool use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Applied Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'Young children spontaneously invent three different types of associative tool use behaviour'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this