I have advocated for a long time that children are born natural scientists – overflowing with curiosity and wonder. Their early lives are filled with experimentation as they wave their hands haphazardly until eventually landing in their mouth. Feeling quite satisfied with the result they learn to repeat the action to please themselves. I am not quite sure where I picked up this understanding – it made intuitive sense to me – and made a good story to tell in class.
To my surprise, this Sunday’s StarTribune reported on a meta-study chronicling 10 years worth of research that point to verification of my long told tale. “When engaged in what looks like child’s play, preschoolers are actually behaving like scientists… forming hypotheses, running experiments, calculating probabilities and deciphering causal relationships” (Gopnik, 2012). Given the opportunity to play and explore, children are shown to closely observe the actions of others and learn from those observations. Researchers have shown that “very young infants can implicitly reason statistically” to the extent they use observed statistical patterns to “test causal hypotheses about people and things”.
According to the research, very young children find engagement as they encounter unexpected phenomenon – they play longer and make application of what they learn in their daily encounters. When denied the opportunity to explore, their actions are shortened and stunted. Turns out when we seek to teach young children by showing them how something is done, their exploration and testing stops.
This research goes way beyond my intuitive sense of children acting as scientists and calls us to bring into consideration how we respond to our infants and preschoolers. Today’s pressure to perform has made its way into preschools and has sought to make them more like schools with focused instruction on academics. Turns out the work children are doing as they test hypotheses and infer causation through play is more cognitively challenging than any formal academic work we may present. It is this “spontaneous exploration and pretend play that we should be encouraging and promoting. “Activities such as encouraging play, presenting anomalies, and asking for explanation prompt scientific thinking more effectively than direct instruction.”
We are wired from very early on to engage in science. Our task as parents and teachers is to get out of the way, set aside our agenda, and let our children play, experiment, and revel in the wonders of the world.
“Preschool set actually engaged in scientific inquiry.” StarTribune. 10/14/2012.
Gopnik, Alison. (2012). “Scientific thinking in young children: Theoretical advances, empirical research, and policy implications” Science 337, pp. 1626-1627.