Did you know your toddler is a scientist?
As a science educator and a mother of an eight-year-old, I am continually surprised by how children — particularly my own daughter Sophie — explore and think about the world.
I see learning everyday where I work at the Museum of Science, Boston. In our Discovery Center, children and their grownups engage in hands-on activities that encourage learning through play. From pretending to be a honeybee to assembling a skeleton, children explore science in a lively, interactive environment. I also get a glimpse of the inner workings of children’s minds through our Living Laboratory® program, where scientists from local research institutions investigate how children think as they play a game, try out a new toy or listen to stories. These researchers are excited to talk with parents about how our children learn and I’ve learned a lot from them too.
For example, at not quite two years old, Sophie could “count” out loud up to 10. Genius, right? As it turns out, not so much. A researcher from Harvard taught me a simple game that provides a better sense of a child’s grasp of numbers. I played this game with Sophie and still introduce it to the toddlers I meet in the exhibit.
When I asked Sophie, “Can you show me one crayon?” from a pile of crayons, she handed me one. But when I asked her to show me two, she gave me a fistful. A few months later, she could show me “one” and “two,” but I’d still get a fistful for “three” and higher numbers. This little game made her learning visible to me. If you play it at home from the time your child is about 18 months until almost four years old, you can see how your child’s understanding of numbers evolves.
Next, a toddler’s first scientific experiments involve trying to find out if the same thing always happens in the same situation. As a toddler, Sophie loved to put a ball on a ramp maze and watch it go back and forth. Once it reached the bottom, she would pick up the ball and roll it down the ramp again and again. She would play at this exhibit for long periods of time because she was trying to confirm if the results would be the same every time she placed the ball at the top of the ramp. This kind of repetition can be a little tedious for parents asked to sing the teapot song a hundred times, but for toddlers it’s essential to learning how the world works.
Another way I’ve come to better understand Sophie’s learning is through storytelling. Parents may wonder if their children can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary in books or on TV. When Sophie was a preschooler, she participated in a study during which a researcher from Boston University showed her photos of a real person dressed as Prince Charming and the real Prince William, and then told her stories about them. Sophie knew who was real and who was pretend because she recognized that “real princes don’t rescue people from monsters and dragons.” The study illustrated that the way you talk about a character helps your child separate reality from fantasy. More recently, the MIT Media Lab has been doing research to determine what’s different when kids read with a parent, compared to “reading” with a robot. Early results? Parents are more effective than a machine.
Society so often focuses on making kids smarter or on “raising the perfect child.” Parents don’t always realize that their four-year-old doesn’t yet have the cognitive abilities of a seven-year-old. By observing and talking with Sophie as she played, I learned a great deal about how she thinks, even before she could talk. The takeaway: Don’t worry if your child can’t do what older kids do. He or she is doing wonderfully normal and amazing things every day – and you do a lot to help!
For activities that can make your child’s learning visible visit: http://livinglab.org/research. For science activities for toddlers and preschoolers visit: http://www.mos.org/discoverycenter.
Becki Kipling is Sophie’s mom and program manager of the Museum of Science’s Discovery Center. Its Living Laboratory has become a national initiative with similar programs at 14 science centers and children’s museums in North America.