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Science as Child's Play

Let me forewarn readers that the next few paragraphs are about science—real science, as defined by such terms as inductive reasoning, hypothesis testing, statistical analyses, and probabilistic modeling. Some people call this child’s play, and, in fact, it is precisely about child’s play that I am referring.

I was struck by an article in a recent edition of Science magazine (September 28, 2012; p. 1623) that discussed new studies concerning scientific thinking in young children. The thrust of the article is that, when even very young children think and learn, they employ intuitive processes that are directly analogous to the fundamentals of scientific inquiry. Children make detailed observations of their worlds, systematically formulating hypotheses, experimenting, analyzing, revising, and making decisions in essentially the same rigorous fashion that defines good science.

While this notion may seem obvious and simple, it actually contradicts historical theories of cognitive development that depicted young children as irrational chance-takers whose observations and conclusions of the here and now required considerable external direction as part of cognitive growth. Yet, empirical evidence now clearly demonstrates that children are innately equipped with a considerable amount of basic intuitive capability that is continuously tested and validated in ways that parallel the logical processes of scientific thinking.

I drew several conclusions from this research that can have important implications for the ways in which science centers and museums everywhere characterize their impacts in the educational arena. The research suggests that young children have both the intuitive capacity and the preference to “think like scientists.” It is the way they naturally think. We speak so often about our role in helping children come to understand these processes and employ them when, in fact, our approach in science centers and museums is more to reinforce children’s cognitive predispositions and to help them validate their own approaches. Children enjoy the science center and museum experience because it allows them to do what they do best. And what greater satisfaction, confidence boost, and sheer enjoyment than to have one’s inherent skills so positively reinforced?

It may be a subtle point in this research, but as we introduce our young visitors to the vast world of science, connecting them with processes that they already feel within, we are helping them to trust those methods of thinking and learning, and we are using science to help them build self-assurance about ways to view so many other dimensions of their lives. As we focus on transforming minds with scientific inspiration, let’s be reminded as well that science is already at work in the poised and prepared minds that come to play.