Psychologist Jeffrey Lockman uses motion tracking technology to capture the movements of young children as they learn how to use tools.

Meeri Kim: How do children learn how to use tools?

Jeffrey Lockman: There are some competing views about the development of tool use. One idea that has been around for awhile says that tool use requires advanced cognitive skills, even at very young ages. Some people even suggested that tool use is what distinguishes humans from other animals. But now we know a number of different species use tools, including chimpanzees and crows.

A newer approach that my lab takes is emphasizing that tool use is based on motor, rather than cognitive, learning — as in, learning how objects can function as an extension of the body.

MK: What has your lab found in terms of how tool use progresses throughout childhood and becomes more advanced?

JL: One form of tool use that my colleagues and I have been studying in children is the development of hammering. There is a type of percussive behavior that we see in some different species. In humans, when babies bang objects, we ask how does that transition or serve as the foundation for hammering?

“Early spatial learning abilities seem to set the foundation for later success in STEM-type disciplines.”

We use motion tracking technology to capture the action patterns children exhibit when they use toy hammers and other objects. When young babies 8 or 9 months of age bang objects on a table, their arm trajectories are very similar to what we see in toddlers at 14 or 15 months old, or even in children two years of age when they use a toy hammer to hammer a peg into a pegboard.

This suggests that the same action pattern we’re seeing in babies is underlying the early tool use that we see later on. Early action patterns that may not be considered instrumental eventually become recruited or adapted for more advanced skills.

MK: You’ve also conducted work on spatial cognition in children, focusing on how they code the location of objects and features. Could you describe a recent study?

JL: A study published in Cognition looked at how toddlers orient objects with respect to one another during a fitting task. We put motion tracking markers on their arms to follow how they’re transporting these objects and rotating them in order to fit them into a slot.

The motion tracking technology importantly enables us to observe planning. We ask at what point are children beginning to rotate the objects in their hands? Do they think about it ahead of time? The study is not simply probing a motor skill, but also how young children’s cognition is reflected in the manual actions of fitting.

MK: What were the main findings?

JLWe found a developmental progression in terms of planning. So children at the youngest age range — around 18 months or so — don’t show much advanced planning. They’ll bring an object to a slot without orienting it beforehand. Then, interestingly, between 24 to 30 months, the children are beginning to rotate the object after picking it up in order to align it with the slot. As they get older, children show more planning earlier in this transport period.

The results are suggesting that children are becoming much more automatic and strategic in how they solve problems. Also, we don’t find any evidence of differences between boys and girls in the realm of spatial planning. On this sort of action-rotation task that involves spatial thinking, we are not finding any sex differences at these ages.

MK: How could such findings be used to help children improve their spatial thinking skills? What do you imagine could be done in terms of implementation?

JL: One of the interesting findings that is emerging from the literature right now is that early spatial learning abilities seem to set the foundation for later success in STEM-type disciplines. Because our work looks very carefully at how spatial thinking unfolds in preschool children, we could observe if some children may be lagging behind in this important skill set. We could then develop educational interventions for these children and give them more experience with these sorts of problems.


Jeffrey J. Lockman is a developmental psychologist who conducts research on perception- action development and early cognitive development. He is a professor of psychology at Tulane University and is a member of the faculty in the Program in Neuroscience there. His work centers on the early development of adaptive manual behaviors, including reaching, object manipulation, and tool use.


The Cognitive Development Society (CDS), which aims to provide a unified voice for the wide range of scholars, practitioners, and others who are interested in change and continuity in the intellectual processes that support mental life, held their 2017 biennial meeting in Portland, Oregon, on October 12-14. The program included cutting-edge research on analogy, imagination, executive function, risk perception, spatial cognition, numerical cognition, moral cognition, causal inference, and language development. More information about the program can be found here.

The interviewee, Jeffrey L. Lockman, will speak about “Object fitting by preschool children: The dynamics of spatial coordination” during the CDS Conference.

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