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Toddlers show creativity even before they can speak

Toddlers show creativity even before they can speak
Toddlers show creativity even before they can speak

Can a toddler barely a year old compose a symphony or write the next great novel? Maybe not, but recent research suggests that young children are already developing their creativity in fascinating ways.

A remarkable new study from the University of Birmingham (UK) and the Central European University (CEU) in Austria discovered that young children can combine simple concepts into complex ideas.

It turns out that babies not only think creatively before they say their first words, but that this inventive mental work could also play a crucial role in language acquisition.

Creativity skills of toddlers

Dr Barbara Pomiechowska, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, suggests that our amazing ability to combine ideas and invent new things may have emerged much earlier than we previously thought.

“Human creativity knows no bounds: it put us on the moon and enabled us to cure deadly diseases – yet despite its importance, we still don’t know when and how this impressive ability to combine ideas and invent new things emerges,” said Dr. Pomiechowska, who conducted the research during her postdoctoral program at CEU.

“This research shows that we need to go back to the very beginning of language acquisition to solve this puzzle.”

Where does creativity come from?

The aim of the research was to uncover the roots of human creativity by studying young children. The scientists postulated that people develop new thoughts and ideas by combining known concepts into new structures.

How early in life these skills emerge, however, has remained a mystery. This is where our tiny participants come in.

The researchers worked with 60 babies around 12 months of age and began teaching the toddlers two new words for referring to quantities.

It’s not exactly rocket science, but the word “mize” was introduced to mean “one” and “padu” means “two”.

They then asked the babies to mix these new words with different object names, for example identifying “Padu ducks” from a selection of pictures.

By using new words for quantities, the researchers were able to test the babies’ ability to combine concepts spontaneously rather than simply remembering word combinations they knew from previous experiences.

Creativity in the child’s mind

Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers monitored where the little learners were looking. And what did they find? The babies were able to blend the two concepts together and thus understand what they wanted to know.

Dr. Agnes Kovacs of CEU’s Department of Cognitive Science and Center for Cognitive Development believes that this ability to blend different concepts not only helps babies decipher complex languages, but also learn about the physical and social world.

“This ability to combine different concepts probably helps babies not only interpret complex linguistic input, but also learn about different aspects of the physical and social world. In adults, it is a skill that helps them go beyond anything they have already thought and open the mind to endless possibilities,” she said.

Conceptual mixing

The ability for conceptual blending – combining multiple concepts to form a new understanding – has long been considered a cornerstone of adult creativity and problem-solving skills.

This study sheds light on the possibility that this sophisticated cognitive ability develops at a much younger age.

Evidence that young children can relate concepts such as quantities and objects to one another suggests that our brains’ propensity for innovative thinking may be hard-wired and nurtured from the earliest stages of life.

This finding changes our understanding of cognitive development and underscores the importance of early intellectual stimulation and the potential to promote creativity in childhood.

Implications for early childhood education

Given these groundbreaking findings, the landscape of early childhood education could undergo profound changes.

To better support and encourage the natural creative abilities of young children, educational strategies could be adapted.

Activities that encourage conceptual mixing, such as interactive storytelling or games that combine different objects and ideas, could play an important role in curricula.

Implementing such methods could not only strengthen early language skills but also develop a generation of innovative thinkers.

Dr. Pomiechowska and Dr. Kovacs advocate for educational programs that take these creative abilities into account and aim to create a stimulating environment in which the latent creative potential of each child is respected and encouraged.

Future directions

This research takes us a step further in our understanding of where and when creativity begins in young children. It paints a picture of babies who are not just passively absorbing the world, but are active and engaged creative thinkers.

So the next time you see a baby babbling or playing with their toys, remember that creative sparks are already flying in their little minds. After all, this research suggests, it’s never too early to start thinking outside the crib.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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