The effect of prior experience on children’s tool innovation

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  • York St John University


Spontaneous tool innovation to solve physical problems is difficult for young children. In three studies, we explored the effect of prior experience with tools on tool innovation in children aged 4- to 7- years (n=299). We also gave children an experience more consistent with that experienced by corvids in similar studies, to enable fairer cross-species comparisons. Children who had the opportunity to use a premade target tool in the task context during a warm-up phase were significantly more likely to innovate a tool to solve the problem on the test trial, compared to children who had no such warm-up experience. Older children benefited from either using or merely seeing a premade target tool prior to a test trial requiring innovation. Younger children were helped by using a premade target tool. Seeing the tool helped younger children in some conditions. We conclude that spontaneous innovation of tools to solve physical problems is difficult for children. However, children from 4 years can innovate the means to solve the problem when they have had experience with the solution (visual or haptic exploration). Directions for future research are discussed.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)81-94
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date8 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017


  • problem solving, cognitive development, innovation, tool use