The Efficiency and Adaptiveness of Children's Information Search Strategies


  • Anna Maria Schwaninger University of Vienna


As exploring and learning is an essential tool for children's development, the question of children's information search strategies has been studied extensively. Previous research has explored this topic by investigating whether children systematically search for information, using paradigms inspired by the 20-questions game. In these experimental setups, children are required to identify a target object (out of many) by asking as few yes-or-no questions as possible. Results indicate that only by the age of seven children begin to ask questions designed to maximize expected information gain, making their search efficient. [1] However, recent findings suggest, that children are able to recognize and adapt to the context of their learning environment much earlier. [2] Highlighting their ability to adapt, rather than just their effectiveness in solving tasks, Ruggeri proposes implementing age-appropriate and child-friendly study designs to better understand young children's search strategies. [2]

This project aims to close the gap that is left by studies focusing on children's effectiveness and takes a closer look into young children's adaptiveness of information search strategies.

To do so, young children aged 2-5 are tested with a developmentally appropriate study design involving minimal verbal skills and reduced need to understand abstract concepts. A spatial experimental design, as adaption to the 20-question game, is proposed, where children have to find specific information out of 16 weighted options in a uniform or skewed distribution. Children are expected to use different search strategies for these two different presettings as adapting their search to constraint or hypothesis-scanning strategies accordingly can maximize the expected information gain. [2]  Further, to better understand the adaptability of this age group, we distinguish between children tasked with generating information requests and those involved in selecting (and evaluating) a predefined set of options.

During a familiarization phase, children are introduced to the experimental setup. Then, embedded in a story, they assist a puppet to locate a specific planet where it has forgotten an item. The child places the cards representing the planets in a tray and queries the puppet if the sought planet is present. If the planet is on the tray, all the remaining cards on the table are discarded; if not, all the cards on the tray are discarded. This design enables children to narrow down the possibilities and employ search strategies known from the 20-question game through a non-verbal approach.

The goal of this project is the implementation and evaluation of an age appropriate study design. Through discarding the emphasis on children's effectiveness and center research on adaptiveness, this study tries to shine a light on young children's adaptiveness in search strategies and their cognitive development.


[1] J. R. Hornsby and F. A. Mosher, On Asking Questions. Studies in Cognitive Growth. New York, NY: John Wiley, 1966. 

[2] A. Ruggeri, ‘An Introduction to Ecological Active Learning’, Curr Dir Psychol Sci, vol. 31, no. 6, pp. 471–479, Dec. 2022, doi: 10.1177/09637214221112114.