Kids Play the Way Scientists Work

By Ashley P. Taylor | October 2, 2012 11:37 am


Kids are natural scientists, it turns out.

In an article published last week in Science, psychologist Alison Gopnik reviewed the literature about the way young children learn, and she finds that the way preschoolers play is very similar to the way scientists do experiments: Kids come up with general principles, akin to scientific theories, based on the data of their daily lives. Gopnik argues that the research should steer educators and policy makers away from more-regimented, dogmatic kinds of preschool instruction.

Scientists have known for a while—as do most new parents—that babies and small children are phenomenally quick on the uptake. Little ones spend most of their time systematically exploring the world through trial and error, and they grasp what seem like complex concepts very quickly. Babies, we know, have an intuitive grasp of probability: In one experiment, researchers showed babies a box filled mostly with white balls and a few red ones, then drew out a sample of balls and showed it to the baby. If the sample was mostly red balls, the baby looked longer at it than if it were mostly white balls. The infant knew that drawing several red balls out of the bin was unlikely, and therefore noteworthy. Toddlers, multiple experiments have shown, can test hypotheses about how machines work—for example, they can figure out which blocks made a machine play when some but not all blocks trigger the toy.

We have to be careful, though. This exploratory, quasi-scientific approach to the world doesn’t last if adults teach kids to do something else: Kids will let adult instruction override their natural curiosity. Gopnik cites an experiment in which a teacher bumped into a toy and made it squeak, as if by accident, then left the kid alone to play with the toy. The child made the toy squeak, but also figured out several other things about it. When the teacher said, “Here is my toy,” and then made the toy squeak, the child left alone with the plaything only imitated what the teacher had done. Researchers titled the paper about the squeaky-toy experiment “The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy.” After the “lesson,” the kids ended up learning less about the toy than they would have if left to simply play.

All this research, Gopnik concludes, argues against adding more instruction to preschool curricula. Let the little scientists play and the world will teach them what they want to know.

Photo via dickdotcom/Flickr

  • Kasi
  • Cameron

    “The infant knew that drawing several red balls out of the bin was unlikely, and therefore noteworthy” – What about the possibility that red balls are simply more interesting than white balls? I assume the study would control for something so obvious like that but I haven’t checked.

  • John Lerch

    White and red might be 2 different classes of things to the baby. So the scientists needed to try to figure out what constituted things in the same class before they inferred anything about probability and babies’ deductive abilities.

  • David Billa

    Great article for a new parent like me.
    Watching my little one discovering the world has been fascinating indeed, and I hope she keeps that curiosity and sense of experimentation all of her life.

  • Jockaira

    This points up the inadvisability of exposing children too early to dogma and belief systems having little resemblance to reality. Wide exposure to the entire world tempered by the accompaniment of adult guides (to answer questions and encourage further investigation) and tolerant allowance for natural mistakes would seem to be optimal for the best intellectual development. Most important: not to shut down the innate curiosity of the child, to allow him to find his own way without the obstruction of pre-packaged answers.

  • Solitha

    I had the same question about the white and red balls. It was easily answered by checking the link.

  • Pippa

    There was a time when our children simply played, mostly with other children. Their days were less structured and they had a lot more freedom to simply explore the world. They had few organised activities and walked and rode everywhere, lacking parental chauffeurs. Death from childhood infection was high, so parents were less paranoid about physical danger and pedophiles which seemed to be relatively less of a risk. Now children rarely die of infectious illnesses, and we are paranoid about physical dangers and pedophiles – even though chances of being abused by one are actually less, in so far as we can measure it – and we hover over them all the time structuring their world for them and keeping them ‘safe’. Children even have toys that come with a script. We sit them in front of a TV as infants, lull them into a nonthinking state with it, and criticize parents who actually encourage their children to get outside and play in the mud. Children are not likely to be able to learn how to ask questions and test hypotheses at any stage, as we do not give them a chance to do so. Even science lessons in school tend to be prescriptive. Will we change as a result of this study – it is unlikely. Would our Grandparents have been surprised by the studies’ findings – probably not.


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