Observe The “Goldilocks Effect” In Action

 learning happens when it's "just right"

“Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skill and comprehension in a way that’s necessary for them at the time. Often children seem to reject what they aren’t ready to learn, only to return to the same skill or concept later with ease. This is not only an expression of autonomy, it’s a clear indicator that each child is equipped with an learning guidance system of his or her own.”

I wrote these words two years ago in my book Free Range Learning. This concept is now being called the “Goldilocks effect.” According to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE, humans are cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” It’s the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The study focused on how babies make sense of our complex world. For years researchers have noticed a contradiction. Sometimes babies prefer to look at familiar items, like a toy from home. Other times they prefer to look at unfamiliar items. Turns out this isn’t a contradiction at all. Babies self-regulate by choosing the amount of novelty and complexity that’s right for them at the time.

They also, according to the study, actively seek out the most reliable information and can predict what will happen next based on what they’ve seen. Babies are a great way to study human behavior. That’s because infants aren’t burdened with cultural and patterned responses. Babies indicate what all of us are like in our most basic form.

The Goldilocks effect has to do with learning at all ages. You are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now. Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold the player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a fascination of their own tend to learn more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

How do we see this in action? By looking at children through the eyes of trust.

The little boy who’d rather stomp in muddy puddles after a rainstorm than attend story hour at the library may need that full sensory experience outdoors more than he needs, right now, to sit still in a group and listen quietly. He’d probably prefer hearing stories while sitting in a parent’s lap where he benefits from closeness and can ask questions as they occur to him.

The girl who prefers to draw pictures of animals and fairies rather than run outside to play with the neighborhood kids may need more time for quiet self-expression than other children. Her imaginative art fuels growth in all sorts of areas, one of which may be a sturdier sense of self that will help her interact more freely with others when she’s ready.

The teenager who drops out when she’s reached a high level of accomplishment in an area, say soccer or fencing or designing apps. What she’s learned in that field isn’t wasted. It’s taught her a whole range of skills and empowered her to move on. She may pursue other interests in what look like fits and starts of motivation. Or the learning situation that’s just right for her may look like boredom to others. She may need time to process, daydream, create, and grow from within before pushing ahead.

Children naturally focus on what they’re ready to take in and do their best to set aside the rest. Often what they set aside is exactly what adults push them to master. We call this stubbornness but really they show us, over and over, that human nature flourishes best without coercion. Efforts to structure learning too heavily are likely to fail (or more often, the student will fail) if it’s not understood that we’re all cued to learn in the ways best for us.


21 thoughts on “Observe The “Goldilocks Effect” In Action

  1. Reblogged this on homeschoolingmiddleeast and commented:
    I know lots of friends who would disagree with this. They believe that their kids will thank them in the future for pushing them to do music or sports or art or whatever lessons. I WANT to believe Laura. And I do practice what she’s preaching. But I do worry that I’m not doing the right thing. However, since I’m not into coercion in general and for learning in particular I would be hypocritical to take a different path from the one Laura advocates. And how much achievement, how good can a child feel if he/she only succeeds if they’re ‘strongly persuaded’ to do that thing? Maybe they would be happy to do music classes, but not that instrument or voice lessons instead? Maybe they would do a sport but not that sport etc…? The problem is, you don’t know if you did it right, for your particular child, until it’s too late, until they grow up and either say, ‘Thanks so much for not pushing me into doing anything’ or ‘Thanks so much for making me do xyz’. Perhaps it’s evident from the start what kind of child one has. If after pushing the kid says, ‘I really enjoyed that, thanks for making me do it’ (or in so many words), perhaps you know you’re on the right path. But my child has never said anything at all like that so I think perhaps he’s the type who needs to find his own way. I certainly have never been thankful for being pushed to do anything and anyway, rarely was. Who knows? At the moment, I am all for trying to find my kids’s fascinations and helping them pursue them only for as long and as far as they want to do so.


    • It’s hard to express an idea in a short piece. I’m seeing this more clearly in this post than in many others. I don’t mean that we don’t open all sorts of amazing avenues for our children or that we don’t encourage them to take on the next challenge. I’m pushing back against an idea, very new to our species, that children’s lives must be filled with managed activities. That doesn’t mean they can’t participate in those activities, it means that we need to be sensitive to each child’s temperament, to give them time for free play, to let them get involved with real and meaningful work, to let who they are continue to unfold even as we open up the wonders of the larger world for them. I’m pretty sure I just made my meaning more vague.

      Let’s just leave it as a matter of trust, that parents can step back from the ways they may have been pushed or the ways society pushes, to trust their children and their own intuition as parents.


  2. Thanks for this. As the world around us continues to put learning in boxes (this is learning; this isn’t; this would be if you took lessons for it, etc.), it’s good to read something clear and true about how *all* our experiences help us know more about ourselves and the world.


  3. What a wonderful reminder of why our family is choosing the path of life learning! As our family plays lakeside today with a beautiful blue sky and uncharted paths ahead while friends jump on school buses, I’m most grateful to be on this journey.
    I think i need to print and carry this blog around as a reinforcement on those days when the skies aren’t as blue and self-doubt creeps in.


  4. Or maybe not any porridge at all. I LOVED that post! I’m sharing it with my daughter, and all mothers of young children. Thank-you!


  5. It’s easy to mistrust accounts that have no gray areas discussed. Concepts are great but what about the application? What about exceptions? Parents and kids are humans, not abstractions. Isn’t wisdom the ability to work out the gray areas? “Efforts to structure learning too heavily will always fail… we’re all cued to learn in the ways best for us.” – Always? All? My oldest was born cued to be offended by his own senses. So many concepts applied to him, not all of them agreeing. In retrospect, what was missing most from all the early intervention were experts who were brave enough to express doubt. Instead, I had to bear all the doubt by myself, while the experts, like this blog, stayed so sure!


    • You make a very good point Delia. I wrote a nearly 300 page book trying to make the gray areas more clear (not easy in a short article) but you are right, use of words like “always” and “all” are too extreme and don’t allow for exceptions. Ironically, I’m trying to open readers to wider perceptions rather than concepts which have dominated our views of education and child rearing.


  6. Laura, yours is exactly the approach I teach and have followed with my children. I’m so glad to have found you and your blog! Did you ever study Magda Gerber’s work? The “eyes of trust” you mention are the essence of Magda’s approach to child care. She was my mentor and, like me, has observed thousands of infants and noted their perfect “self-learning” abilities. I don’t see this as a “no gray area” approach at all, but one that is sensitive to and aware of the fact that parents (and all adults, actually) are extremely powerful in the eyes of our children. When we even subtly suggest to a baby what she might learn, she can easily receive the message that she should not trust herself and do what she would choose to do. She should ignore her impulses and follow us. This can then become a key dynamic in our relationship… “tell me what I should do to gain your attention and approval” instead of intrinsically motivated learning. In my experience, this is often the difference between children who are self-confident, have a healthy sense of self, and truly love learning and those who don’t.

    Anyway, cheers to you, Laura, for sharing this information!


    • I’ve been reading your blog the last few months and sharing many of your wonderful, insightful, baby-respecting posts on the Free Range Learning facebook page. I wish I’d read your site as well as Magda Gerber’s work before I wrote my book, but it seems to me that we’re saying very similar things about self-learning.

      As for gray areas, I worked many years as a non-violence instructor. I know that it’s much easier to build bridges of understanding with people when I avoid “all or nothing” words. That leaves room for people to incorporate new ideas gradually.

      So glad to connect with you Janet!


    • “has observed thousands of infants and noted their perfect “self-learning” abilities. ” – I wonder if this includes any dysphoric, dysregulated or autistic infants. When something is not working properly in the child, it’s difficult for him to learn anything but anxiety and mom is at a loss. Often the pediatrician calls it “colic”. I had a newborn who had enormous sleep problems and severe reflux. My husband and I made herculean efforts to help him fall asleep. I have many mom friends who have similar stories.


      • Back when I spent a lot of time with Le Leche League we helped lots of mothers with babies who were all over the spectrum, but I suspect you’d find clearer answers via Janet’s blog http://www.janetlansbury.com/

        As for unwell babies and sleeping issues, I have only my own experience to share. All four of my babies had significant medical issues that caused them outright pain. I spent hours each day carrying, nursing, and comforting them. The only way any of us got any sleep was to sleep together, gradually easing them into their own beds as they reached the toddler years. Although I expected that their medical problems might hinder achieving normal developmental milestones, the drive to learn is incredibly powerful. Even better, it can serve as a distraction to a tiny baby whose health is poor but who nonetheless finds pleasure in small accomplishments like grasping, rolling over, crawling, and always, a parent’s smile.


  7. Thank you for reading and sharing my blog, Laura! I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts about “building bridges of understanding”, especially regarding parenting. This is a very sensitive issue for all of us. Oh, and thank you for mentioning your Facebook page. I will go and connect with you there right now. I’m looking forward to collaborating with you!


    • I am one giant walking opinion on this topic. I’ll try to keep from shouting.

      Television, movies, video games, and other screen amusements are in an entirely separate category. They enter the brain differently than the quieter more natural input found in drawing with crayons, talking to siblings, playing outdoors, building with Legos, riding a bike, etc. They are designed with the assistance of marketers, child development experts, even findings from neuroscience (check out the term “neuromarketing” on google) so they will hold the viewer/player’s attention. In my opinion, parents must help children find a balance. Otherwise a highly pleasurable, highly addictive activity tends to win nearly every time. Worse, it makes amusing oneself seem harder and harder. A little screen time can be full of remarkable benefits, more than an hour or two a day are linked to all sorts of detrimental effects. http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/factsheets/screentime.pdf

      Every family decides how they’ll handle screen time. I’m pretty fervent. None of my kids were exposed to tvs or computers on before they were two. Between the ages of two and five they watched a few hours of PBS a week and played less than an hour of educational computer games (apps on tablets weren’t around then). Even though they were watching wonderful shows and got a lot out of them, I still noticed that it took them up to an hour or more after watching to “restart” their own impulse to play. They were much more likely to whine or have trouble amusing themselves. This was really apparent if they’d spent time with a grandmother who babysat by turning on the tv. A few hours with her and they couldn’t seem to amuse themselves for the rest of the day! Between the ages of six and ten they watched tv and/or played on the computer for up to two hours a day. I saw many more benefits at that age. Over ten I relaxed many of the restrictions but still kept an eye on balance. One decision I made was to stick to a family policy of no tv on during the day. It never became a habit and now as teens and young adults they still don’t watch much tv. They’re all about computers but are still online less than I am.


  8. Such an important article. Thank you. 46 years as a parent and educator, 34 years running schools working with many great teachers I can attest that this in one of the most important lessons. It is hard for those who take responsibility for kids to get the paradox that: it is our job to change their minds without trying to change their minds. That the starting point is to trust the child is also correct. That is the concept behind my book “The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children.” Go to http://www.geniusinchildren.org and see what you think.
    And you couldn’t have said it better than the first time (two years ago). I am glad we now have a name for it.


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