To differentiate the use of simple associations from use of explicitly reasoned selective social learning, we can look for age-related changes in children’s behaviour that might signify a switch from one social learning strategy to the other. We presented 4- to 8-year-old children visiting a zoo in Scotland (N = 109) with a task in which the perceptual access of two informants was determined by the differing opacity of two screens of similar visual appearance during a hiding event. Initially success could be achieved by forming an association or inferring a rule based on salient visual (but causally irrelevant) cues. However, following a switch in the scenario, success required explicit reasoning about informants’ potential to provide valuable information based on their perceptual access. Following the switch, older children were more likely to select a knowledgeable informant. This suggests that some younger children who succeeded in the pre-switch trials had inferred rules or formed associations based on superficial, yet salient, visual cues, whereas older children made the link between perceptual access and the potential to inform. This late development and apparent cognitive challenge are consistent with proposals that such capacities are linked to the distinctiveness of human cumulative culture.