Monday, January 3, 2011

Little scientists

We take it for granted that young children are perpetually "getting into things." In fact, a major job for caregivers is to keep this instinct for getting into such things as plugs and electrical fans from causing harm. As a do-it-yourself exercise in developmental psychology, find any child between one and two, and simply watch her play with her toys for half an hour. Then count up the number of experiments you see—any child will put the most productive scientist to shame.

But when you think about it more closely this is a very odd thing for children to do. They don't get into things in order to satisfy their immediate needs; their immediate needs are taken care of by adults. Why do young children expend so much energy and time, even putting their own safety at risk? It makes perfect sense, though, if you think of toddlers as causal learning machines. Experimentation is one of the best ways of discovering new causes and their effects and understanding the causes you've already observed. The Mars rovers, perhaps the most dramatic recent discovery machines, get into everything too.

By the way, if you're interested in doing the exercise, my wife and I are looking for babysitters for our 2-year-old.

Quote from Alison Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby (New York: Picador, 2010) p. 91

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