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Imagination helps preschoolers problem-solve

Problem solving skills are part of everyday life. For a developing child, learning how to catch a fly ball, use a spoon, turn on the television, put together Lego blocks, or tie a shoelace, are just a few examples where these skills come in handy. According to new research, parents can help facilitate this learning process by simply asking them to “imagine” the solution. “Several studies have shown that without such verbal prompts, many children have difficulties with this sort of spatial reasoning until they are a little bit older (about 4 years of age), and make same types of errors consistently, even after training,” says Dr. Amy Joh, Assistant Professor Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University and lead researcher of the study. “However, in our study, without providing prior training and without giving children any answers, a simple prompt to imagine the solution helped children to solve the problem.”

Dr. Joh and her team tested the spatial reasoning skills of forty-eight toddlers, three years of age. During the test, Dr. Joh dropped a ball down one of three intertwined tubes and then asked the preschoolers to predict the location of the ball. To find the ball, children needed to follow the path of the relevant tube, a problem that young preschoolers often find difficult. The tube task requires children to use imagery to solve the problem since there are only three possible tubes to track, and the tubes lead to only three possible outcomes.

She asked a first group of toddlers to imagine the ball rolling down the tube before making their prediction. She gave a second group of toddlers the same instructions but did not ask them to imagine which tube the ball would fall into. As a control, she asked a third group of toddlers to make their predictions without giving any instructions. She then ran two different types of trials. On half of the trials, the tubes were transparent, and on the other half, the tubes were opaque. Half of the preschoolers in each of the three groups received the transparent tube trial before the opaque tube trials. The other half of toddlers were given the opaque tube trials followed by the transparent tube trials. The transparent tubes gave the toddlers visual feedback so they can watch the ball move through and emerge out of a particular tube; in contrast, toddlers who received the opaque tube trials first, did not receive this visual feedback. Dr. Joh's team used a statistical model to analyse the results.

The statistical analysis showed that preschoolers who were asked to use visual imagery performed significantly better on the test compared to other groups, including preschoolers who saw the ball fall through the transparent tube. 

“The ‘imagine’ instructions appear to have provided participants with a mental problem-solving strategy that was more effective than visual feedback.” says Dr. Joh, who published her findings in the May 2011 issue of Child Development. 

She plans on directing future research efforts to understand how and why prompting children to “imagine” triggers problem-solving ability.  “We are very excited about several new future directions, such as examining what happened when children "imagined" the path of the moving ball, how the visualization strategy compares to other strategies such as giving children more direct cues. For example, by using three different coloured tubes. We also want to examine how much help children need with the different strategies.”

For more information on how children learn, visit the series on Executive Function, in Part Two: The development of executive function in infancy and early childhood.

Nira Datta
Medical Writer/Editor, AboutKidsHealth


Joh Amy S., Jaswal Vikram K, and Keen, Rachel. Imagining a Way Out of the Gravity Bias: Preschoolers Can Visualize Solution to a Spatial Problem. Child Development. 2011 (82): 722 - 750.