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Durham University

School of Education

Research Projects

Publication details

Flynn, E. & Whiten, A. (2013). Dissecting children's observational learning of complex actions through selective video displays. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 116(2): 247-263.

Author(s) from Durham


Children can learn how to use complex objects by watching others, yet the relative importance of different elements they may observe, such as the interactions of the individual parts of the apparatus, a model’s movements, and desirable outcomes, remains unclear. In total, 140 3-year-olds and 140 5-year-olds participated in a study where they observed a video showing tools being used to extract a reward item from a complex puzzle box. Conditions varied according to the elements that could be seen in the video: (a) the whole display, including the model’s hands, the tools, and the box; (b) the tools and the box but not the model’s hands; (c) the model’s hands and the tools but not the box; (d) only the end state with the box opened; and (e) no demonstration. Children’s later attempts at the task were coded to establish whether they imitated the hierarchically organized sequence of the model’s actions, the action details, and/or the outcome. Children’s successful retrieval of the reward from the box and the replication of hierarchical sequence information were reduced in all but the whole display condition. Only once children had attempted the task and witnessed a second demonstration did the display focused on the tools and box prove to be better for hierarchical sequence information than the display focused on the tools and hands only.

School of Education