Parents looking to teach their toddlers new skills could benefit from an alternate strategy: humor. A team of researchers in Paris, France investigated the role that humor plays in learning for infants. They built upon previous studies findings that, for older children, laughter can enhance cognition. The researchers demonstrated that toddlers who laughed were better able to learn a new task. The findings could influence how parents and caregivers help infants learn new skills.
For the study, 18-month-old toddlers observed an adult use a tool to retrieve an out-of-reach toy. Using tools to obtain objects is a skill that most children acquire around age 24 months, but younger children can learn it after a demonstration. The 16 toddlers in the control group watched as the adult played with the toy after retrieving it. The 37 toddlers in the experimental group saw the adult perform a silly action—immediately throwing the toy to the ground—after retrieving it. Half of the toddlers in the experimental group laughed at the adult’s antics.
Toddlers who laughed in response to the demonstration were more successfully able to repeat the task themselves compared to those who did not laugh and compared to the control group.
It is not clear why laughter enhances toddlers’ ability to learn. However, the researchers suggest two possibilities. One reason could be brain chemistry: positive emotions increase dopamine, which benefits learning. Another possibility is temperament. The authors posit that, “In this case, it is not humor per se that may have facilitated learning, but [that] temporarily ‘smiley’ babies were more likely to engage with the environment and therefore to attempt and succeed at the task.”
More research is need to understand how humor helps children learn. But in any case, it is clear that laughter makes it easier for children to learn.
This research is published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.
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