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Learning by Doing


Learning is for Everyone reports today on a study by the journal  Cognition , being published this month, that makes a conclusion many parents and caregivers might consider a case of stating the obvious: “Preschool children spontaneously invent experiments in their play.”

The “child as scientist” theory has been around a long time, but scientists  finally seem to have evidence that parents make good scientists, too, and the observation that children are inventive is more than just anecdotal.

An MIT experiment cited in the story describes how children systematically tested possibilities to determine how to turn on a musical light-up toy.  Any observant parent or caregiver could probably describe similar experiences watching children at play.

I know I certainly can! My journals are filled with fascinated observations of my children at play.  I devoted several pages once to the experience of watching my then 1 year old daughter incrementally explore a banana.  I commented at the time  that I felt like Jane Goodall watching a chimp with a tool!  My curious tot carefully explored the peel, the fruit, examined textures, tasted various parts to see which were edible and which were not.  It wasn’t a particularly pretty sight, but it was completely fascinating to recognize early scientific exploration.

That same child, discouraged from biting a toy about a year later, spent the next thirty minutes trying to figure out just what it was we didn’t want her to do.  She bit the toy again, and watched for our response.  Discouraged once more, she turned her attention to an empty bottle and bit that. No, we told her again.  She methodically tried biting several other things in the vicinity, finally landing her new little teeth in my arm.  That netted her a stern no and got her plopped into a playpen, where she wailed angrily for a few second and then stopped.  Brought back out again, she went through the whole experiment a second time and after the results were all the same, never bit anything that wasn’t food again.   (Grown up scientists pitch fits, too.  They just have bigger playpens.)

Other times, I watched my children turn sticks and rocks into rudimentary tools, invent games, stories, books and art, and creatively problem solve. The more I stayed out of their way, and avoided micromanaging their free time, the more creative and inventive they became.  Today they’re all remarkably adaptable, capable, inventive and creative young adults.

We’re all born curious.  It’s curiosity that compels newborns to scan faces and utter sounds that become words, that urges toddlers to toddle, and children of all ages to touch, taste, smell, and explore the world around them. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of habit, sometimes for no good reason at all, we begin to thwart that innate curiosity in children, often when they just begin to master the skills they need to get a handle on their world.

“Don’t touch that”.  “Don’t go there”. “Don’t do that”. “Put that down”. “Leave that alone”.

And one of the worst curiosity killers of all – “Don’t ask so many questions”, and its insidious variants, “Because…” (I said so, that’s the way it is…) and “It doesn’t matter why…”

Some limits are important, of course.  The world’s a dangerous place and there are common sense safety issues to consider.  But setting preemptive boundaries before a child can feel them out for herself is a bigger health and safety risk than never letting a child get dirty, fall from a tree, suffer an injury, or fail at something.

After children are discouraged from finding answers a few times, many of them stop asking. After their parents find that TV and video games occupy them and keep them “safe” indoors, and away from harm, kids find the surrogate adrenaline rush of being virtual super heroes fulfilling enough – and learning stops.  Everyone is safe. The questions have ended. And curiosity dies, along with its brothers-in-arms innovation and invention, innocent victims of fear and weariness.

Now obviously, curiosity isn’t completely dead.  We enjoy the gifts of other people’s curiosity every day.  But invention isn’t a bottomless treasure trove that we can rely on others to continuously replenish for us. Compounding the problem is that much of the invention we enjoy today is coming from other places and other people, where knowledge is more celebrated, invention better funded.  We’re being pacified into a false sense of intellectual superiority playing with other people’s toys.

We need people driven more by curiosity than by a desire for wealth and power. And that requires a generation of people who have grown up asking questions and who are experienced in finding answers and creating solutions; people who aren’t afraid to get hurt, fall or fail, people for whom the greatest, most dangerous and most exciting innate human trait we have – curiosity – is a celebrated way of life!  In short, we need adults whose curiosity as children was supported and encouraged.

Now that it’s officially documented by the white coats as sound science, maybe natural and experiential learning experiences will get the respect they deserve in education discussions, and in family learning experiences, and getting dirty playing with sticks, pebbles and mud will be seen as the serious science it really is!

 

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