Is your child smarter than a chimp?

Posted on June 9, 2011


Most parents I know take great pride in bragging about how smart their kids are. Is this something they inherit? Or does it boil down to how much effort mummy and daddy put into developing their cognitive skills?

Scientists say babies’ sensory organs are not fully developed at birth and need fine tuning, so the early childhood years are crucial for a head start in the academic race. Traditionalists favour interaction and the ‘messiness of  real life’ experiences for the best way for children to learn. But in our fast-paced age of growing technology, some toddlers are interacting less with each other and more with technology such as smartphones and iPads.

Snapdragons nursery in Bath is one of the first in Britain to use iPads to teach children

This week I was asked to look into this story for a possible report for work. Believe it or not some nurseries have done away with the crayons and toys in favour of iPads which all sport apps specifically targeting kids under the age for three.

The iPads, which form part of the nursery teaching day, are used for learning the basics about letters, numbers, shapes and colours, but unless this is coupled with human interaction from parents or teachers, critics say this type of learning will never stretch development. Some say by substituting physical interaction with a virtual one, children’s social; physical; emotional cognitive and linguistic skills will be skewed. And many of these kids simply cannot relate what they’ve learnt on the iPad to a person when they’re quizzed later.

Chimpanzees are said to have the cognitive ability of three-year old child. These incredible animals demonstrate some remarkable cognitive skills that would challenge some adults, let alone children. Learning is done through trial and error and observation, watching others in the group or kin handle complex situations.

In a study published in Plos One researchers found that chimps were able to outsmart their human counterparts when it comes to problem solving. Researchers used one of Aesop’s fable for inspiration. It wasn’t the one about the lion and mouse, it was the story about a crow who uses stones to raise the water level in a pitcher to reach the liquid to quench its thirst.

Chimps were given a similar set up where they had to raise the water level in a narrow cylinder in order to reach floating peanuts. The vertical glass tube was secured to a cage so it could not be moved or broken. At the bottom was a peanut, floating on a small amount of water.

Out of 43 chimps, based in the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, in Uganda (where I have stayed) and Germany’s Leipzig Zoo, 14 worked out that they needed to take the water from the dispenser in their mouths, and then spit it into the tube to raise the water level. One chimp even urinated into the cylinder after getting frustrated having to spit water a number of times to get results.

Lead researcher Daniel Hanus from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany, said: “You cannot explain it by trial-and-error learning. They weren’t just spitting water around the room and some fell in by accident.

“Instead, they were standing in front of the problem, trying to work out the solution – at first by trying to use their fingers, or trying to break it.

“But some, then went to the drinker and got the mouthful of water and came back and spat it directly into the tube, and a few did it enough times to get the peanut.”

He added: “I think it is quite impressive – I call it insightful behaviour.”

Interestingly the study was repeated with children of various ages as well as other apes (gorillas and orangutans).

The researchers found that the four-year-olds were outperformed by the chimps: only two out 24 younger children could solve the problem.

Six-year-olds did better, with 10 out of the 24 managing to work out they needed to use the water. And eight-years-olds did the best, 14 children – 58 per cent – completed the task.

With results like that, I say put away that iPad and give these little minds some good old-fashioned problems to solve to really give them a head start.