Pre-school kids reveal their instincts for science

No wonder those introductory chemistry kits sell so well. By four years of age there’s already a little scientist inside us, just bursting to get out and into the laboratory of life. That’s according to Claire Cook and her colleagues, who have provided further evidence for the precocious scientific skills of young children.

Sixty 4- and 5-year-olds were shown a box-shaped toy that played music and lit up when beads were placed on it. Crucially, some of the children were shown that each of four beads, placed one at a time on the toy, activated it. This was the “unambiguous condition” that implied any old bead is capable of activating the toy. Other children were in an “ambiguous condition”: they were shown, by placing beads one at a time on the box, that two of the beads activated it, but two of them didn’t. In both conditions, the researchers said afterwards: “Wow, look at that. I wonder what makes the machine go?”, followed by: “Go ahead and play”.

Next came the key exploratory phase of the study. The children were given two pairs of new beads (different from those seen earlier). One pair was fixed together permanently. The other pair could be snapped apart. They had one minute to play.

Here’s the take-home finding: children who’d earlier seen that all beads activate the toy were far less likely to bother snapping apart the snappable bead pair to test which beads activated the toy and which didn’t. In fact just 1 out of 20 children in that condition bothered performing this “experiment”. By contrast, 19 out of 40 children in the ambiguous condition snapped apart the snappable bead pair and tested which specific beads were capable of activating the toy and which weren’t.

A second study was similar to the first, but this time the children were only given a single bead pair that was permanently fixed. This time, to identify precisely which beads activated the toy and which didn’t, the children had to come up with the entirely original idea of placing the pair on the toy in such a way that one bead made contact with its surface whilst the other bead hung over the edge. Again, children presented initially with ambiguous evidence (some beads activated the toy, some didn’t) were far more likely to perform this original “experiment” to isolate the beads with the activating effect (9 of the children did so; 45 per cent of the group). By contrast, kids shown unambiguous evidence earlier (in which all beads were shown to have an activating effect), almost never performed the “experiment” (just one of them did so; 5 per cent of the group).

It’s not simply the case that children played in a more varied manner after seeing the ambiguous demonstration at the study start. Children differed from each other in the variety of their play, but kids in the unambiguous group played on average with just as much variety as kids in the ambiguous group. It’s just that the latter kids were specifically more likely to perform the crucial bead “experiment” to find out which were the activating ones.

“These results suggest that pre-schoolers attend to the kinds of evidence that distinguish states of knowledge from states of uncertainty, and generate novel interventions that isolate variables and maximise the potential for information gain,” the researchers said.

“… [S]cience requires knowing where there is something to be learned and also how to learn it. Our results suggest that children are sensitive to all of these factors and integrate them to guide exploratory play. We believe these results tighten the analogy to science that has motivated contemporary theories of cognitive development.”

ResearchBlogging.orgCook, C., Goodman, N., and Schulz, L. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play. Cognition, 120 (3), 341-349 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

Link to earlier Digest item: Cultivating little scientists from the age of two.

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

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