In many ways, young children are natural scientists. And according to The Scientist in the Crib, by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, we are “born with the ability to discover the secrets of the universe…with the drive to explore and experiment until we do.” Indeed, the first three years of life are consumed by a desire to explore and experiment with objects. The crib, the playroom, the bathtub and the backyard are all excellent laboratories for our young scientists.
From the moment babies enter the world, they observe and classify objects and actions. A 6-month-old will thoroughly scrutinize a new object with every sense she has at her disposal (including taste!) in an effort to figure out how it works. Babies experiment with sound and movement, learning how to use their bodies to communicate. You may have noticed how your baby talks to himself, listening to the sounds he produces as he squeals happily in his crib after a nap. He’s experimenting with how to move his mouth and make certain sounds that he has heard from adults.
And the curiosity doesn’t stop with infants – young children explore continuously, looking for patterns, testing hypotheses and seeking explanations about the world around them. For example, two-year-olds methodically test their own desires in relation to their parents’ desires, which are often in conflict. Imagine the following scenario: your toddler is reaching for a glass bowl on the table, watching you as she repeats an action you have already told her is forbidden. You may think she is being mischievous, when actually your child is simply testing the consistency of your reaction. She is like a scientist who replicates an experiment to see if the same result will occur. As Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl put it, our toddlers are promising researchers, while we adults are the laboratory rats. This type of investigation contributes to a young child’s ability to test and solve problems of causation. Before they are 3 years old, children are able to grasp the concept of cause and effect.
Babies’ brains change as a result of the new things they learn and as young children continue to grow and explore, new discoveries help them enrich, modify, reorganize – and sometimes replace – their initial theories with quite different ideas. What can we do to encourage children to explore and investigate their world safely? Try out these activities with your little one:
- Give your newborn age-appropriate colorful objects to examine through look, feel, taste and smell.
- Talk to your baby, providing a play-by-play of everything he does. Researchers believe that this commentary helps to organize the world for babies.
- Fill a large, plastic shallow bowl with water and provide your baby with simple scooping tools for endless exploration and fun. You can do this in the bathtub as well.
- For ages 3+, make “cloud dough” with flour and cooking oil (8 parts flour: 1 part oil). It feels powdery like flour one moment and then moldable like damp sand the next. It’s easy to make and the unique texture will amuse your child to no end. (For gluten-free cloud dough, replace the flour with rice flour).
The goal of children’s exploration in science is to deepen their conceptual understanding of the world around them. Adults can help children achieve this goal by providing a supportive, fun environment. To learn more about how researchers are studying the way infants and young children think, check out this video which shows what scientists have learned about baby brainpower.