Humans are largely social learners, so it’s no surprise that for many years, psychologists believed children learned to use tools from others early on. But a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests otherwise.

Lev Vygotsky, a pioneer of psychology in child development, set the precedent by claiming children rarely showed spontaneous tool use. Instead, he argued, children observe parental behavior and then mimic those behaviors. While Vygotsky’s theory for social learning remains largely true, his work discouraged psychologists from exploring kids’ potential for spontaneous tool learning.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham, the new study found spontaneous tool use among children frequently occurs when solving novel problems without the help of adults. The study involved 50 children between 2 and 3 who were asked to complete a series of 12 tasks. Each task was based on tool-using behaviors observed in wild chimpanzees and orangutans.

"We chose great ape tasks for three reasons: Firstly, they are unfamiliar to children. This ensures that children will have to invent the correct behavior instead of using socially acquired, previous knowledge,” said Eva Reindl, a PhD student at UB’s School of Psychology, in a press release. “Second, they are ecologically relevant. And third, they allow us to make species comparisons with regard to the cognitive abilities involved.” .

None of the kids knew that all 12 tasks required using a tool. In one task, for example, children had to retrieve pompoms from a small box by using a stick as a lever. The task was meant to parallel a behavior among great apes in which twigs are used to remove kernels from nuts or seeds from fruits.

"The idea was to provide children with the raw material necessary to solve the task,” said Dr. Claudio Tennie, a fellow at Birmingham. “We told children the goal of the task, for example to get the pompoms out of the box, but we never mentioned using the tool to them. We would then investigate whether children spontaneously came up with the correct tool behavior on their own.”

Results showed the kids were able to spontaneously devise the correct tool behavior In 11 of the 12 tasks. Interestingly, the researchers found the children’s most common tool-use behaviors were those frequently observed in wild apes. The researchers argued that these findings suggest humans’ cognitive abilities for using tools are shared by great apes, and that there may be significant overlap in our general cognitive abilities.

"While it is true that more sophisticated forms of human tool use indeed require social learning, we have identified a range of basic tool behaviors which seem not to,” Raindl said. “Using great ape tasks, we could show that these roots of human tool culture are shared by great apes, including humans, and potentially also their last common ancestor."