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David Turner
219
Children

How do Kids Learn Faster than Adults

Understanding children's ability to learn and how the brain works is useful to help coaches design and tailor their sessions

I think we’ve all heard the theory that children are able to learn certain skills faster than adults, but is that really the case? And if so why? I’ve been trying to discover whether all this is fact or fiction and looking at how understanding a child’s ability to learn can benefit us as coaches.

The simple answer is that yes, there are some tasks that children can perform better than adults. For those of you who appreciate the longer scientific answer, this is because in adults the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where working memory is stored, is more developed than in children. A developed prefrontal cortex means that adults are hampered by a functional fixedness, causing adults to see a spade as a spade i.e. a tool for digging.

Or let me put that another way for you sports coaches out there … an adult sees a tennis racket or a shuttlecock as exactly that. However, the under-developed prefrontal cortex in a child allows children to be far more inventive than that, as their prefrontal cortex is not limiting their ability to be creative and flexible.  You’ll probably know this as “thinking outside of the box”.

So this is why a child can see a broomstick as javelin (yes, that was me as a child) or the mattress as a trampoline.

As a result, children are often better than adults at solving tasks that require a creative solution, such as being set a challenge with limited equipment. Put another way, an adult’s brain is designed to perform, but a child’s brain is designed to learn.

Applying the science to coaching practice

With that in mind (pardon the pun) it doesn’t take a child genius to work out that knowing that children’s brains operate in this way must have some useful benefits for a coach.

For example, when we are adapting a session for younger children, a child with a mild injury or a disabled child, could it be better to ask the athletes how they could adapt the session? It seems they are genetically programmed to be far more creative than ourselves.

Beyond the promotion of creativity, another way this information could benefit a coach is when we talk about convention learning or in sporting terms the rules of the game, respect, and sportsmanship. The under-developed prefrontal cortex allows children to learn social conventions at a fast rate. This is because at this stage of brain development a child sees the most prevalent behaviour as the appropriate way to behave, hence the reason why appropriate adult role models are so crucial to a child’s social development.  Interestingly, this ability to quickly learn conventions also explains a child’s ability to learn languages faster than adults.

ADHD and ASD 

Another piece of useful information for coaches of children is that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are both believed to be linked to the development of the prefrontal cortex and therefore both affect a child’s ability to learn certain skills.

Children with ADHD tend to exhibit a delay in the development of the prefrontal cortex, however, the opposite is true of ASD children. In children with ASD, this more developed prefrontal cortex is believed to be the primary cause for their difficulty in acquiring social conventions. If you’d like to know more about ADHD or ASD please check out the UK Coaching Resource Bank where we have information cards for coaches on these two conditions and more.

So I guess the final message for this piece is to say that we as coaches really need to let children do what they are naturally good at … being creative!

If you’re interested in reading more about the role of the prefrontal cortex in child development then “Cognition without control: When a Little Frontal Lobe Goes a Long Way” is a nice place to start.

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David Turner