Is tool-making knowledge robust over time and across problems?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


  • Sarah R. Beck
  • Ian A. Apperly
  • Zoe Demery
  • Leila Iliffe
  • Sonia Rishi

Colleges, School and Institutes


In three studies, we explored the retention and transfer of tool-making knowledge, learnt from an adult demonstration, to other temporal and task contexts. All studies used a variation of a task in which children had to make a hook tool to retrieve a bucket from a tall transparent tube. Children who failed to innovate the hook tool independently saw a demonstration. In Study 1, we tested children aged 4–6 years (N = 53) who had seen the original demonstration 3 months earlier. Performance was excellent at the second time, indicating that children’s knowledge was retained over the 3 month period. In Studies 2 and 3 we explored transfer of the new knowledge to other tasks. In Study 2, children were given two variants of the apparatus that differed in surface characteristics (e.g., shape and color). Participants generalized their knowledge to these new apparatuses even though the new pipecleaner also differed in size and color. Five- to 6-year-olds (N = 22) almost always transferred their knowledge to problems where the same tool had to be made. Younger, 3- to 5-year-olds’ (N = 46), performance was more variable. In Study 3, 4- to 7-year-olds (N = 146) saw a demonstration of hook making with a pipecleaner, but then had to make a tool by combining pieces of wooden dowel (or vice versa: original training on dowel, transfer to pipecleaner). Children did not transfer their tool-making knowledge to the new material. Children retained tool-making knowledge over time and transferred their knowledge to new situations in which they needed to make a similar tool from similar materials, but not different materials. We concluded that children’s ability to use tool-making knowledge in novel situations is likely to depend on memory and analogical reasoning, with the latter continuing to develop during middle childhood.


Original languageEnglish
Article number1395
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 4 Dec 2014


  • tool use, innovation, problem solving, cognitive development, pedagogy, social learning, analogy