Small Scientists

Five traits come naturally to little ones

(Photo by Josie Glausiusz)
(Photo by Josie Glausiusz)


When my son was 18 months old, he conducted the following science experiment: Carefully remove one pea from plate. Place pea on table. Squash pea with index finger. Observe. Repeat.

I am not sure what major discovery he was making—evaluating the sensation of a squishy pea on his finger, perhaps, or determining if a sphere can be flattened into a circle—but, as a mother of twins who are now two-and-three-quarter years old, I was struck that for them toddlerhood is one gigantic science experiment. Everything in my children’s world is there to be examined, touched, squeezed, shaken, and taken apart. And they are willing to repeat an experiment over and over again in pursuit of knowledge.

The more time I spend with my children, the more I realize that toddlers make excellent scientists. Here’s why:

1. They’re good at statistics. Jenny Saffran, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, has concluded babies as young as eight months learn language by doing statistics: they can detect individual words in a continuous stream based on the frequency and patterns in which those words appear. (For example, in the phrase “pretty baby,” the transition between “pre” and “ty” is far more common that “ty” to “ba.”)

2. They persevere. My son and daughter drink milk from plastic straw cups made from five—yes five—individual parts: the cup, the cap, a two-piece straw, and some sort of plastic widget that holds the whole caboodle together. I watched them take those cups apart and put them back together repeatedly until they figured out how to slot the straws together and screw on the top. It reminds me that some of the greatest scientists continued their work even in the face of fierce obstacles: the Italian biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, for example, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her research on a protein known today as nerve growth factor, set up a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom in 1940 after Mussolini’s race laws expelled Jews from universities. (She died in late 2012 at the grand age of 103.)

3. They observe the natural world. My children can spot an ant or a beetle from many yards away, and they are unconcerned by the “ughs” that greet them when, say, they decide to bring a large plastic spider to the nursery. In this I encourage them: as bee expert Jürgen Tautz of the University of Würzburg in Germany told me, “My parents were no biologists, but they loved nature. So during our frequent walks in the woods and fields with my little sister, our parents always pointed out insects to us, saying, ‘Look, how wonderful, how interesting!’ Then with my own money I got from them for sweets I bought animal books, especially insect books.” Tautz now runs HOBOS (HOneyBee Online Studies), which enables schoolchildren around the world to study a honeybee colony via the Internet.

4. They are open-minded, and unconcerned with convention. One of the most delightful aspects of language acquisition is realizing the unusual and creative ways in which children think. In the last couple of days, I’ve been told that “dinosaurs eat cake,” and that “the sun wakes up and goes to work.” As Marvin Minsky explains in No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, the Nobel-laureate physicist looked at the world in a similar way. When Feynman faced a problem, Minsky writes, “he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks.” The American cognitive scientist adds, “I think the reason most people fail is that they are too determined to make something work only because they are attached to it. Talking to Feynman, whatever came up he would say, ‘Well, here’s another way to look at it.’”

5. They are great communicators. As anyone who has endured an emphatic “NO!” can attest, toddlers are fantastic at communicating their needs. They want a pet alligator. They want to stand and watch the garbage truck or a crane carrying a canister of cement across a construction site. They have 100 reasons why they’d rather not go to bed. When they are hungry or tired or just plain cantankerous, their parents know it. Communication is the essence of good science: unless scientists can explain the importance of their research, they can have little hope of obtaining funding or the support of the public for their work. As every academic knows, it’s publish or perish.

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Josie Glausiusz writes about science and the environment for magazines that include Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, Discover, New Scientist, and Wired. From 2013 to 2015 she wrote The American Scholar’s “On Science” blog. Her Hakai Magazine article, “Land Divided, Coast United,” won Amnesty International Canada's 2015 Online Media Award.


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