But by the time they turn six, most children will understand that they need to practise skills to prepare them for later goals, according to University of Queensland research.
Published in academic journal Child Development, the study found that six year olds were able to recognise the need to practise, improve and finesse their skills to meet later-life goals.
Researchers tested 120 children aged from four to seven and found that five year olds were just starting to understand the idea of practise, but four year olds didn’t yet grasp the concept.
Led by UQ School of Psychology PhD student Melissa Brinums, the study investigated the age at which children start to regulate their own learning to achieve their long-term goals.
“As adults, we learn skills and information for the future on a regular basis, but we know very little about how children develop this capacity,” Ms Brinums said.
“I wanted to understand how this capacity develops because it has vast implications for children’s learning and academic achievement as well as their success and expertise in later life.”
The study was conducted by showing children three games involving motor skills and telling them they would be later tested on one of the games and would win 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 with any of the games before returning to the first room for the test.
The researchers anticipated that children who understood that practise could help their future performance would spend more time playing the target 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 practise was.
“Most six and seven year olds explained what practise was and knew that it helped improve their skills, and most played the target game longer than the other games and said they did so to practise for the test,” Ms Brinums said.
“Most five year olds showed an understanding of practise and spent slightly longer playing the target game; however, when asked why they had chosen to play that game, most gave reasons other than practise, for example, because it was easy or fun.
“Most four year olds didn’t spend more time playing the target game, and didn’t understand the concept of practise,” she said.
Ms Brinums said age related cognitive development could explain why the older children understood and engaged in deliberate practise.
“Episodic foresight, the capacity to envision the future, allows children to foresee the future utility of a skill and metacognition, the capacity to reflect on and monitor mental states, plays an important role in allowing children to monitor and control their own learning,” she said.
The study is the first research focussed on the understanding and engagement of children between four and seven, in deliberate practise.
“Our findings suggest that it may be beneficial to start having conversations with children as young as six about their future goals, and encourage them to think about and work toward those goals,” Ms Brinums said.
“A focus on the future may help kids understand why practising is so important.”