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Research Shows Youngest Kids Learn by Thinking Like Scientists

When my daughters were toddlers, we'd participate in play groups where we moms would shake our heads with amusement as the kids dumped every puzzle on the floor and sorted through the pieces or lined up all the dolls in a row.

Turns out we were watching science in action.

That's the conclusion of Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research has shown that the thinking and learning of babies and toddlers strongly resembles that of scientists. Gopnik's paper delving into the way that preschoolers think was published this week in the journal Science.

"Everyone knows that babies are wonderful learners," Gopnik said during a webcast Thursday with the National Science Foundation. "But what we have only just discovered in the last 10 years or so is how babies can learn so much."

Gopnik said that her research shows that, much like scientists, the youngest kids learn by testing hypotheses against data and drawing conclusions. "Everyday play is really a kind of scientific exploration," she said. "It's just that when they do experiment, we call it 'getting into everything.' "

So how did researchers figure out what the youngest kids were thinking? By giving them "very simple kinds of problems to solve" in a series of experiments that included playing with machines that light up and play music. Researchers observed the kids as they figured out how to make the machine work. "Just using those very simple techniques we can show that children are using the data" in the way scientists do, Gopnik said.

Gopnik's research has led her to conclude that the best way to encourage young kids to learn is not by pushing academics, but by providing them with a "safe, rich environment" that will allow them to explore their natural connections to science.

It's thinking that goes against the current pressure to make preschool more academic to take advantage of young kids' ability to learn. Gopnik is aware that she's bucking a trend, but notes that "very young children are making amazing cognitive leaps" through everyday play, which she said suggests that the push for more academics could have negative as well as positive effects.

"We don't need to be making preschool more like school," she said.

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