Children Play Like Scientists Work

Below is a fantastic article on a new study that shows striking similarities in the ways young children and scientists engage in the problem solving process!  Fascinating to see this  methodical testing and discovery process we esteem so highly in our scientists comes so naturally to children!

Source: Wired Science, Wired UK

By Katie Scott, July 28, 2011

Children Play Like Scientists Work

Young children play like scientists work, according to a new research project at MIT and Stanford University.

The findings, which were published in the journal Cognition, reveal how 4- and 5-year-olds approach games methodically.

They were given a specially designed toy “that lit up and played music when the child placed certain beads on it,” says Nature. The cognitive scientists found that, when the children didn’t know which beads would activate the toy — namely they had been given what the team defined as “ambiguous evidence” — they tested each variable in turn.

Laura Schulz, a professor at MIT draws the analogy of someone trying unsuccessfully to open a door with a key: “You might change the position of the key, you might change the key, but you’re not going to change both at once,” she told Nature.

The 60 children were split into two groups — one was shown that four different beads would activate the toy, while the other group was told: “Some things [namely some of the beads] make the machine go, and some things don’t make the machine go.” This latter group was then given the beads as two pairs — one that could be separated and one that could not. What the team noted as of import was how the children handled the inseparable beads.

The toy would only take the bead pair horizontally, but despite this, the children held the bead pair vertically to test each bead separately. In the final experiment, the children were given just the inseparable beads and were shown by the team that the toy will only work when the beads were placed horizontally. Despite this, they continued to test the pair vertically as well as horizontally showing, what Schulz terms as evidence of ingenuity that shares common principles with science — they kept on testing the variables separately.

In the paper, the authors acknowledge: “This study does not establish whether children understood the importance of isolating variables initially or whether they inferred its importance in the course of the experiment.” But the cognitive scientists claim, however, that the results begin to “bridge the gap between scientific inquiry and child’s play.” So next time your little one is stacking play blocks into the dishwasher, remember that there’s a method to their madness.


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