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Your preschooler thinks like a scientist
September 27th, 2012
06:28 PM ET

Your preschooler thinks like a scientist

Young children have more sophisticated thought processes than you might imagine.

A review article in the journal Science by Alison Gopnik of the University of California, Berkeley, sums up a swath of research suggesting that preschoolers can make deductions about cause and effect, infer preferences and test hypotheses.

"New empirical work shows that young children learn from statistics, experiments (i.e., play) and from the actions of others in much the same way that scientists do," Gopnik writes.

Here's an experiment to demonstrate: Gopnik and colleagues showed children a device called a "blicket detector," which is a box that plays music in response to certain blocks being placed on it.  Block A activated music by itself, block B did not, but both A and B together would activate music.  The researchers found that the 2, 3 and 4 years old children were able to figure this out and make the music play.

A 2011 study in the journal Cognition showed a similar effect.  That experiment involved plastic beads that can attach to each other to make a larger structure.  Individual beads were placed on a machine and one group saw that only some beads made the machine work, whereas the second group saw that all beads did.  Then, the kids got two new beads hooked together to play with.  In the group where only some beads led to the machine going, kids pulled the beads apart and tested them separately.  In the other group, they did not.

The beliefs of young children are also influenced by statistical evidence.   A 2007 study in Developmental Psychology found that preschoolers could more easily point to something as a "cause" when it went along with their theories, than when it went against their theories.

Such studies drive home the point that children's play isn't frivolous; it's actually utilizing a degree of scientific thinking, she writes.  It may even suggest that older students and adults could benefit from learning scientific concepts in a more observational "play"-oriented way, rather than just being talked at.

Gopnik argues that this research has profound implications for policy.  She says that policy-makers "systematically underestimate the intellectual capabilities of preschoolers," and that the scientific work that children demonstrate in experiments like these is "more cognitively challenging, in fact, than most school work."

Tell us what you think: Could education benefit from these insights? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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  2. Bill

    I would be interested in knowing the religious knowledge and involvement of the children in this study.

    I believe there is a correlation to religion and the lack of math and science excitement and knowledge in today’s society. With religion you grow up believing what someone tells you from a book and you are not supposed to question it. What the book says is how it is. There are no questions to ask, no discoveries to make, it is what they say it is. With math and science, you have to ask questions. You have to make the discoveries and formulate your own opinions on the findings. You can’t rely on what the guy before you says or does...not 1 scientist will say they were right 100% of the time. If you’re wrong, you learn from your failure and you try and solve the problem again.

    Young children learning religion, or anything for that matter, are more likely to ask questions like why, and how come? Sounds like a scientists thought process to me...When was the last time you questioned the norm?

    I believe that when future generations look back on our days in history, we will be the generation that breaks the religious oppression mold that turned the corner to the global human evolution.

    October 2, 2012 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Liam

    Bill, you sound like you still think we live in the Enlightenment. Every heard of Issac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Paine, John Locke, Adam Smith? All men who questions the world and what people said to be true. Almost all of them pushed the boundaries of what religion demanded. The "oppressive mold" you refer to has been broken. The most intelligent of our world for centuries have not blindly followed religion. Those who swallow the blue pill instead of daring to try the red are simply lacking the character and will power to join the intellectual revolution.

    P.S. Ernest Rutherford. Atomic scientist. Brilliant man. Would never admit to being wrong or to making mistakes.

    October 12, 2012 at 01:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dora

    I think that, although this is impressive for a young child it goes along with their natural development. Children's cognition develops dramatically in their first few years of life. The fact that the children in the study were able to make a connection between block A and the combination of block and B just goes along with their schema stage.

    January 14, 2013 at 21:18 | Report abuse | Reply
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