Study: Young Children Explore as Scientists Do

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 27, 2012 2 min read
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In the ever-increasing drive to start the college pipeline as early as possible, debate has been heating up over just how much academics and testing should be included in early-childhood education programs. Now, a National Science Foundation-backed report in the journal Science argues that children’s natural learning style already reflects the scientific process educators will spend the next decade trying to instill in school-age students—if they can get an engaging environment to explore.

Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, reports that children from as young as 8 months old through preschool explore through techniques that would seem familiar to any scientist: they make hypotheses and test them against data; predict outcomes using statistics, and can infer the causes of failed actions.

Source: National Science Foundation

All of these things, Gopnik and her colleagues argue, happen years before any formal training in the same scientific techniques. “What we need to do to encourage children to learn is not to put them in the equivalent of school, tell them things, give them reading drills or flash cards. We really need to put them in a safe, rich environment where the natural capacities for exploration, for testing, for science can get free rein,” she said in a briefing with reporters.

In the past decade, emerging research on brain development and plasticity have given parents and educators a much bigger sense of young children’s cognitive abilities. Rather than the traditional metaphor of a young child as a “blank slate” on which adults imprint knowledge, children constantly analyze and make conclusions about the world around them.

This can give teachers and parents more faith in children’s learning potential, yet Gopnik warned, “One of the unfortunate things that’s happened is, as we’ve begun to realize just how powerful babies and young children’s brains are and how much they’re learning, is, often the way people interpret that is to say we should put them in school earlier. There is great pressure from parents and policymakers to make preschools and early-childhood education more and more structured, more and more academic, more and more like school. What new science is telling us is ... that push may have negative effects as well as positive ones.”

Moreover, young children need a “safe, rich, engaging” environment to explore, and that’s often one more gap between children in concentrated poverty and their wealthier peers. “Twenty to 25 percent of children are growing up in poverty; not just in terms of money coming in, but growing up in isolation, where it’s too dangerous to go out on the street, in families where there isn’t a supportive network of people to take care of you or pay attention to what you are thinking,” Gopnik said.

The report emphasizes that ensuring each child has a nurturing environment to explore early on may be as or more important to getting them ready for school than ensuring they meet pre-literacy benchmarks.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.