If you’ve ever been around kids, you know that they often learn many skills through observation of the people around them and mimicry. Kids figure things out pretty quickly, too; natural curiosity helps kids discover how to press a button to turn the tv on, or to twist and turn the doorknob to open a door.

Researchers have explored this further, observing children as young as age 2, and have learned that kids intuitively use mathematical concepts such as probability to help make sense of the world around them.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Washington, showed that toddlers could tell the difference between two different ways an experimenter played a game, and make better decisions from observing.

First, the child watched as the researcher played. The researched placed a wooden block onto a lunchbox-sized box activate  a nearby marble-dispensing machine. One block activated the machine 2/3 of the time, and a differently colored and shaped block triggered the machine only 1/3 of the time.

The children could see which  strategy was more successful than the other by watching adults win and lose. When it was their turn to play, the children would apply the more successful strategy, so they could focus on winning.

“In the real world, there are multitudes of possible ways to solve a problem, but how do we learn how to find the best solution?” said lead author Anna Waismeyer, a post-doctoral researcher at UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “In our study, we wanted to see if young children could detect the difference between two imperfect ways of winning a game, and then use the better strategy to their own advantage.”

It wasn’t clear, though, whether the toddlers were making their choice based on probability – the better two out of three rate – or frequency, so the researchers ran the experiment again on a separate group of toddlers. They kept the frequency the same for both blocks and set up the game so that all the children saw the marble machine activate four times for each block. Probability varied, with one block activating the marble four out of six times (2/3 probability) and the block with the less probable chance activating the marble machine four out of 12 times (1/3 probability).

When it was their turn to play the game most of the kids picked the more successful block, demonstrating that they were able to use the difference in probability to their advantage.

“Our findings help explain how young children learn so quickly, even in an uncertain and imperfect world,” said Meltzoff, a UW professor who holds the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair. “Remarkably, they learn about causality even if the people they are watching make mistakes and are right some but not all of the time.”