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Researcher shows how preschoolers are, quite literally, little scientists

My oldest daughter is very into playing "scientist;" using a kit she received for a recent birthday we're often doing little experiments involving citric acid, baking soda and the like. But as it turns out, a young child doesn't need to be pipetting to be doing scientific work: Merely exploring the world appears to fit the bill.

In a review published late last week in Science, UC Berkeley's Alison Gopnik, DPhil, outlines how "very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much [of the] learning and thinking in science." As 80beats' Ashley Taylor writes today:

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.

Taylor goes on to describe how Gopnik believes these studies taken together "should steer educators and policy makers away from more-regimented, dogmatic kinds of preschool instruction." Or, as Taylor puts it: "Let the little scientists play and the world will teach them what they want to know."

Previously: A proposal to combat “science alienation”
Photo by Michelle Brandt

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