Here’s What’s More Exciting To Young Kids Than Rewards

Many parents, guardians, teachers and coaches use rewards to influence the behavior of young children. But a new study says that 4- and 5-year old kids like something else better than rewards. The findings of the Ohio State University team provides insight into early childhood development and learning.

It turns out that rewarding children to influence behavior might not only be setting a bad precedent, it may disrupt the learning and development process. At least for 4- and 5-year olds, exploration seems the better path to development, learning and positive behavior changes.

A team of Ohio State University researchers discovered that 4- and 5-year olds and adults play the same game where their choices result in rewards, both groups realized which choices had the best payoff pretty quickly. What they did with that knowledge was the surprise.


Adults used what they learned to max out on points and rewards. The kids kept exploring other options. Apparently, they wanted to know if the values had changed and what else might be new.

“Exploration seems to be a major driving force during early childhood — even outweighing the importance of immediate rewards,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“We believe it is because young children need to explore to help them understand how the world works.”


While adults often think that children’s explorations are just random, this is apparently not the case. The findings indicate that children approach their exploration pretty methodically. They seem to want to make sure they don’t miss anything.

“When adults think of kids exploring, they may think of them as running around aimlessly, opening drawers and cupboards, picking up random objects,” Sloutsky said

“But it turns out their exploration isn’t random at all.”


Postdoctoral researcher Nathaniel Blanco conducted the study with Sloutsky at Ohio State. They published their findings online in the journal Developmental Science.

The project really involved 2 studies. In one, 32 4-year olds and 32 adults were involved. Each participant was shown a computer screen with four alien creatures on it. When a creature was clicked on, a specific number of virtual candies was rewarded to the participant.

The overall goal was to acquire as much candy as possible in 100 turns. That candy could then be “turned in” for real stickers when the game was over.


Each creature gave 1, 2, 3 or 10 candies when clicked on. The rewards for each creature remained constant throughout the experiment.

The adults seemed to catch on quickly to the conditions. They picked the 10-candy creature 86 percent of the time. The children selected that creature only 43 percent of the time.

Were the kids having trouble remembering which creature was which? Apparently not, since a memory test performed after the study revealed that 20 of 22 of the kids could correctly pick out the creature with the biggest payoff.


“The children were not motivated by achieving the maximum reward to the extent that adults were,” Blanco said. “Instead, children seemed primarily motivated by the information gained through exploring.”

You might think the children were randomly clicking to see what would pop up. Sloutsky says this wasn’t the case. Even when the highest-reward creature wasn’t chosen, the kids went systematically through the other choices. They apparently were trying to ensure they didn’t go too long without testing each choice

“The longer they didn’t check a particular option, the less certain they were on its value and the more they wanted to check it again,” he said.


In the other study, a similar game was used. In this one, however, the value of three of the four creatures was visible, while one was hidden. Which option was hidden was randomly determined in each trial, so it changed often. But the values of all choices remained the same, even when a choice was a hidden one.

37 adults and 36 4- and 5-year olds participated. The adults chose the best option 94 percent of the time, while the children chose the highest-value option only 40 percent of the time.

Adults chose the highest-value option when it was hidden 84 percent of the time, while the kids chose it only 2 percent of the time. The hidden option was chosen by the kids 40 percent of the time, regardless of its value.


“The majority of the children were attracted to the uncertainty of the hidden option. They wanted to explore that choice,” Sloutsky said.

Some of he children’s behavior was like that of the adults. These kids nearly always chose the highest-value creature. During the second study, a few of the children nearly always avoided the hidden option.

These variations may have to do with different levels of cognitive maturation in children, Sloutsky said.


All children, however, appear to go through a phase where systematic exploration is a main priority for them.

“Even though we knew that children like to run around and investigate things, we’re now learning that there is a lot of regularity to their behavior,” Sloutsky said.

“Children’s seemingly erratic behavior at this age appears to be largely molded by a drive to stockpile information,” added Blanco.


Next time you see children exploring their world in a seemingly random fashion, look closer. You’re likely to see a methodical young mind at work, cataloging the world around it. You’d do well to find ways to encourage that.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Nathaniel J. Blanco, Vladimir M. Sloutsky. Systematic Exploration and Uncertainty Dominate Young Children’s Choices. Developmental Science, 2020; DOI: 10.1111/desc.13026

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