Photo: Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children

Evidence continues to mount about how much young children learn through play. Now a new report in the journal Science shows that children at play use sophisticated scientific and mathematical principles to explore how the world works.  The report, by psychologist Alison Gopnik of the University of California, Berkeley, reviews more than a decade of research and finds that very young children are natural experimenters. (See also “Studies Shed Light on the Minds of Young Children.”)

“New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science,” the Science report’s abstract states. ”Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways. These discoveries have implications for early childhood education and policy. In particular, they suggest both that early childhood experience is extremely important and that the trend toward more structured and academic early childhood programs is misguided.”

Gopnik’s lab, for instance, has a machine dubbed the blicket detector. It lights up and plays music when some objects are put on top of it, but not when others are. Gopnik describes a simple experiment in a Science podcast. “We showed the children one block makes the machine go two out of three times, and another block makes the machine go two out of six times. And then we simply asked the children to make the machine go,” Gopnik says.

“Well, they’ve seen the machine go off two times in both cases. But if they’re actually calculating the probability of the machine going off, they should prefer the two-out-of-three block to the two-out-of-six block. And in fact, that’s just what 4-year-olds do, and in some new experiments that we’ve done, even 2-year-olds do.”

To Gopnik, the implications of her work and the work of other scientists are clear.

“There’s a real push that’s coming both from parents and from policymakers to make early childhood education more like school – more and more academic. What you often will hear from people in the policymaking field, for example, is, ‘Well, the early kind of development is socio-emotional, but then we have to give children cognitive skills.’ And what they mean by cognitive skills is academic things like being able to do arithmetic,” Gopnik says in the podcast.

“What this new research shows is that children have amazing cognitive skills even when they’re 2, 3 and 4 – and they’re exercising those cognitive skills in the course of playing, of experimenting, of exploring. And when we make preschools more academic – more structured, more like schools –we’re actually not encouraging children to do the kind of real deep scientific and cognitive work that they’re capable of doing when they’re exploring with a knowledgeable and attentive person around paying attention to them.”

(For more on Gopnik’s report, see stories in Inside School Research and The New York Times.)