Reviews | What babies know about physics and foreign languages


Parents and policy makers have become obsessed with getting young children to learn more, faster. But the image of early learning that drives them is exactly the opposite of that which emerges from developmental science.

Over the past 30 years, the United States has completed its transformation to an information economy. Knowledge is as important in the 21st century as capital was in the 19th, or land in the 18th. In the same 30 years, scientists have discovered that even very young children learn more than we thought possible. Put them together and our focus on getting kids learning comes as no surprise.

The problem is that most people think that learning is the kind of stuff we do in school, and that parents should act like teachers – they should direct special lessons to children to produce particular kinds of knowledge or skills, with the help of practical books. and “parental” apps. Studies prove that a quality preschool helps children thrive. But policy makers and educators are still under pressure to justify their investments in early childhood education. They responded by replacing imaginary corners and recess times with “school readiness” tests.

But in fact, schools are a very recent invention. Young children were learning thousands of years before we even thought of schools. Children in foraging cultures learned by watching what the people around them did every day and playing with the tools they used. New studies show that even the youngest children’s brains are designed to learn from simple observation and play in a remarkably sensitive way.

Today’s young children continue to learn best by watching the everyday things adults do, from cleaning the house to fixing a car. My grandson Augie, like most 4 year olds, loves watching me cook and bravely tries to copy what I do. But how does he decide whether to just push the egg whites around the bowl or try to replicate exactly the particular wrist-flapping action I learned from my own mother? How does he know to transfer the egg yolks to the bowl of flour without accidentally dropping them into the whites, as Grandma often does? How did he decide that peas would be a good addition to a strawberry soufflé? (He was right, by the way.)

Experimental studies show that even the youngest children are naturally driven to imitate. In 1988, Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington did a study in which 14-month-old children saw an experimenter do something weird – she tapped her forehead on a can to make it light up. A week later, the babies came back to the lab and saw the box. Most of them immediately tried to bang their foreheads on the box to turn on the light.

In 2002, Gyorgy Gergely, Harold Bekkering and Ildiko Kiraly did a different version of this study. Sometimes the experimenters’ arms were wrapped in a blanket as she tapped her forehead on the box. The babies seemed to understand that when the experimenter’s arms were wrapped, she couldn’t use her hands, and that must have been why she used her head instead. So when it was the babies’ turn, they took the easy route and patted the box with their hands.

In 2013, David Buttelmann and his colleagues made another version. First, the babies heard the experimenter speak the same language as them or a different language. Then the experimenter banged her head on the box. When she spoke the same language, babies were more likely to tap the box with their forehead; when she spoke a different language, they were more likely to use their hands.

In other words, babies don’t mindlessly copy – they notice who you are and why you act.

Kids will also use what they see to come up with new clever actions, like putting peas in a soufflé. For example, in our lab, Daphna Buchsbaum, a few colleagues and I showed 4-year-olds a toy with many different handles and tabs. An adult said, “Hmm, I wonder how this toy works” and performed nine sets of complicated actions, such as pulling one of the handles, shaking a tab and flipping the toy. Sometimes the toy played music and sometimes it didn’t.

The actions followed a pattern: some of them were necessary to operate the machine and others were superfluous. For example, children can see that the toy only lights up when the experimenter shakes the tab and turns the toy over, no matter what else she does.

Then she asked the child to play the music. Children analyzed the pattern of events, determined which actions actually moved the toy forward, and immediately produced those actions. They would simply pull the tab and turn the toy over. They used their observations to create a clever new solution to the problem.

We take it for granted that young children “fit into everything”. But new studies on “active learning” show that when children play with toys, they act a lot like scientists doing experiments. Preschoolers prefer to play with toys that will teach them the most, and they play with those toys in ways that will give them the most information about how the world works.

In a recent experiment, for example, Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson of Johns Hopkins showed 11-month-old babies a sort of magic trick. Either a ball appeared to go through a solid wall, or a toy car appeared to roll off the end of a shelf and hang in the air. Babies apparently knew enough about everyday physics to be surprised by these strange occurrences and paid a lot of attention to them.

Then the researchers gave the babies toys to play with. The babies who had seen the ball disappear through the wall hit it; those who saw the car hovering in the air kept dropping it. It was as if they were testing to see if the ball was really solid, or if the little car really defied gravity.

It’s not just that young children don’t need instruction to learn. In fact, studies show that explicit instruction, the kind of teaching that goes along with school and “parenting,” can be limiting. When children think they are being taught, they are much more likely to simply replicate what the adult does, rather than create something new.

My lab tried a different version of the experiment with the complicated toy. This time, however, the experimenter acted as a teacher. She said, “I’m going to show you how my toy works”, instead of “I wonder how this toy works”. The children imitated exactly what she was doing and did not come up with their own solutions.

Children seem to understand, quite rationally, that if a teacher shows them a particular way of doing something, it must be the right technique, and there’s no point in trying something new. But as a result, the kind of teaching that accompanies schools and “parenting” pushes children towards imitation and away from innovation.

There is a deep irony here. Parents and policymakers care about education because they recognize that learning is increasingly important in the information age. But the new information economy, as opposed to the old industrial economy, requires more innovation and less imitation, more creativity and less conformity.

In fact, children’s naturally evolved learning techniques are better suited to this kind of challenge than the teaching methods of the past two centuries.

New research tells us scientifically what most preschool teachers have always known intuitively. If we want to encourage learning, innovation and creativity, we have to love our young children, take care of them, talk to them, let them play and let them watch what we do in our daily lives.

We don’t have to make children learn, we just have to let them learn.


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