Preschoolers are a perplexing lot to many parents. Unlike toddlers, they have usually developed enough maturity and language skills that they can seem fairly sophisticated. They ask really thought-provoking questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” or  “Why is water wet?”

They are still little kids, however, and they have a tendency to act in ways that do not make sense to adults. They refuse to wear a coat, even if they are cold. They will eat a granola bar off the floor, but they won’t eat one that has been broken in half (especially if a parent is the one who broke it).

I’ve been around enough of them to know that they often do not follow the directions or precautions you give them, no matter how many times you repeat yourself. So why is that? Are they just choosing to ignore you? Or is there something different about the functioning of their brain that makes it difficult for them to plan ahead? New research shows that it probably has a lot more to do with the latter.

In the past, many researchers thought that the functioning of young children’s brains was much like that of adults. They could reason and plan ahead but just not as effectively. New research is showing that this may not be the case. Instead, young children’s brains actually function quite differently, especially in regards to skills like planning ahead.

University of Colorado researchers conducted a creative study to understand how young children (3-year-olds) follow directions compared to older children (8-year-olds). They set up a simple computer game involving a set of rules.

  • When a picture of the character Blue (from Blue’s Clues) was followed by a picture of a watermelon, the child was told to press the happy face button.
  • When any other character appeared (e.g., SpongeBob Squarepants) they were told to press the sad face button.
  • The researchers then used a device to measure the children’s eye activity to determine how much mental effort they were using to complete the task.

What they found was that the older children had to exert very little mental effort to do this task because they could anticipate which picture was coming up next. Preschoolers, however, had to use more effort to think about which button to push in response to the game. They had to consciously think back to the character they had just seen, instead of being able to anticipate the future.

So what does this mean for parents of preschoolers? As the researchers point out, this study seems to indicate that parents shouldn’t expect their preschooler to think ahead – for example: to bring their coat when going outside – even if you told them in advance. Just repeating this type of information over and over probably won’t help. While your preschooler is probably listening to you, their brain doesn’t really retrieve this information until it becomes immediately needed, like when they step outside and realize it’s cold. The researchers put it this way,

“The good news is what we’re saying to our kids doesn’t go in one ear and out the other, like people might have thought,” said CU-Boulder psychology Professor Yuko Munakata. “It also doesn’t go in and then get put into action like it does with adults. But rather it goes in and gets stored away for later.”

The good news is that children can improve in following instructions. Remember, their little brains are immature but very flexible. Like exercising muscles, you can help your child “exercise” their brain to do new tasks.

When you ask your child to do something requires them to look beyond their own immediate desires, their brain has to switch gears. As psychologist Laura Markham points out, the more practice they get doing this willingly, the more exercise their brain gets in working towards an outward goal. They key here is: willingly. It’s important to work with your child for compliance so those brain connections take hold. If you force them to do something, it’s much less effective.

It may sound simplistic, but those old-fashioned games we played as kids really can help our own kids learn these self-discipline skills. Remember games like freeze dance and Simon Says? These simple games help kids exercise those brain connections that require them to wait and not act on their immediate impulse. There’s a reason these games are still played (or should be played) in preschools.

Psychologists also suggest that you can help create a “bridge” from the activity your child is engaged in (e.g., playing) to the task you want them to do (e.g., get shoes on). This involves more than just the “two-minute warning” that we all use on a regular basis. It goes a step further and encourages the child to bridge the gap between the fun activity and the required task. So maybe you suggest your child drive his toy train over to the shoe rack to begin putting on shoes. You could suggest a race to see who can put their jacket on the fastest. All these “bridges” help connect their play to the task at hand. This helps ease the transition and can even make it seem like fun.

Of course, children’s brains do eventually mature to the point that they can plan ahead and anticipate future events. Even the 8-year-olds in the study already had a much easier time completing the task than the preschoolers. In the meantime, this study is a good reminder that young children are not just like adults in smaller bodies. They are probably not actively trying to ignore you – yet.