Applying computational modeling to assess age-, sex-, and strategy-related differences in Spin the Pots, a working memory task for 2- to 4-year-olds

Dev Psychobiol. 2021 Jan;63(1):42-53. doi: 10.1002/dev.22016. Epub 2020 Jul 29.


Working memory (WM) develops rapidly during early childhood. In the present study, visual WM (VSM) was measured using the well-established Spin the Pots task (Hughes & Ensor, 2005), a complex non-verbal eight-location object occlusion task. A self-ordered hiding procedure was adopted to allow for an examination of children's strategy use during a VWM task. Participants (N = 640) between the ages of 2 and 4 years were tested under semi-naturalistic conditions, in the home or in a museum. Computational modeling was used to estimate an expected value for the total trials to complete Spin the Pots via a random search and child performance was compared to expected values. Based on this approach, we determined that children who found six stickers retrieved them in significantly fewer trials than the expected value, excluding chance performance and implicating VWM. Results also showed age-related and sex-related changes in VWM. Between 2 and 4 years of age, 4-year-olds performed significantly better than younger children and girls out-performed the boys. Spontaneous use of a color matching hiding strategy was associated with a higher success rate on the task. Implications of these findings for early development of VWM are discussed.

Keywords: computational modeling; early childhood; executive functioning; sex differences; working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Computer Simulation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term*