My messy child is a scientist!

Children as young as infants can not only detect statistical patterns, they use those patterns to test causal hypotheses about people and things.

We can’t tell you how many times we were told, as children, “what a mess you’re making! Stop fooling around with that and clean up this mess.” Our parents must have been neat-niks or something, because they were always putting a stop to our investigations. Yes, investigations were what we called them because we were curious to find out what would happen if you mixed different types of soil and water in different seasons or different weather conditions. You closely examined a rotten orange wondering why it had turned blue. We roasted pieces of jack-o-lanterns on the household garbage incinerator. We splashed in the tub just to see the pattern of the water droplets on the surface of the bath water. We were always messing around.

Now, years later, we discover that we were not just messing around but engaged in scientific thinking. Yes, it’s a fact, substantiated by research. In the September 28, 2012 edition of the journal Science, psychologist Alison Gopnik of the University of California, Berkeley describes how children as young as infants can “not only detect statistical patterns; they use those patterns to test causal hypotheses about people and things.” Come to think of it, we have observed toddlers and preschoolers engaged in informal experimentation with all kinds of objects and behaviors. They stack toys or cans in different configurations to see which way they will balance best. They bang on a cooking pot with a spoon to see if it will make the same loud noise each time. They repeatedly “test” parents who bribed them with a treat one time to see if that whining behavior will produce another treat. This observation/experimentation cycle is the essence of play and it is also the essence of scientific thinking. Physicists, biologists, astronomers – all types of scientists – observe physical phenomena, make guesses (hypotheses) about how and why it happens, set up a situation where they think it will happen a certain way (experimentation) and they think about what was the result of their actions (analysis). Finally, scientists communicate their findings and the processes of experimentation to others and so do children as well. How many of us have heard this or a similar declaration, “Mom, I threw my ball as hard as I could to see how high it would go and it fell into the trees and now I can’t find it.” Only, the scientists say, “hey, we shot our rocket up really fast and it fell into Mars and now we can’t find it.” People have to learn by trying to do new things, it’s the only way.

We all know that, whereas scientists have a complex system of support and over-site, children need adults to support and over-site. But, short of allowing your child to create endless mud messes, dangerously unstable stacks of things and enough noise to make your life a living heck, what can a parent do to support this type of critical thinking process that leads to complex intellectual development. For starters, you can give your child the gift of time and space. Time to explore objects freely (and safely) without creating an environment that is over-structured. This means time in the sandbox, the woods or meadows and the bathtub, sink or lake. It means stopping to watch a toad in the garden or listen for the sounds of night birds. It means stopping on your way to do something else when you spot something interesting, or when your child does. It doesn’t mean explaining everything and listing a lot of scientific facts. This type of lecturing just doesn’t give a child the opportunity to process self-learned, experiential knowledge that they need to reinforce their curiosity and cognitive skills. Free exploration with support from adults is what Kilmer and Hofman refer to “spontaneous sciencing.” (Kilmer and Hofman, 1995).

Another type of support that parents can offer children who are exploring and experimenting is asking productive questions. These types of questions include action questions, comparison questions, measuring and counting questions and problem-posing questions. For example, a problem-posing questions might begin, how could we….?” Measuring and counting questions ask “how many” or “how heavy.” Mary Lee Martens, of the CUNY Cortlands, describes the productive questioning process in more detail in her article in the journalScience and Children.

If you want some multimedia help with encouraging your child to think like a scientist, look no further than your local PBS affiliate. One of PBS’s most popular programs, Sid the Science Kid, is broadcast nation-wide and focuses on stories that promote inquiry and investigation for preschool children. Sid also has a great website on PBS Kids which is “designed to further develop children’s natural wonder and build a strong foundation for early science exploration.” The activities on the web site are structured to “support collaborative learning” between adults and children, so don’t forget to work with your child as you explore Sid’s activities.

Finally, we suggest that the most important thing a parent can do is to recognize when scientific exploration is happening in children. Unfortunately, too often we are in such a hurry to get somewhere and do something that we fail to recognize the signs of wonder and curiosity in children. Since helping a child to develop their cognitive skills is such as critical task for families, we should take every practical opportunity we can to support this development. So, look for signs of interest in your child’s face. Listen to their words when they draw your attention to something. Make yourself aware of where your child’s focus has landed. Michigan State University Extension suggests asking your child, “what are you up to?” You will be surprised at the multitude of things that children show interest in.

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