The Science of Why and its impact on children’s learning

It is late-morning and I am busily clearing my countertops in an effort to get ahead in washing the dishes. Various silverware, bowls, cartoon-inspired and portion-divided plates, as well as their rounded and colorful utensil counterparts plunge into the sink. Each item’s eager descent instigates rogue drops of water and the occasional bubble to make their valiant escape from the stainless steel basin, coating not only my dishes in an antibacterial slobber but also the surrounding area.  Amidst this scene of clanking dishes and the occasional soapy splash, my toddler is seated atop a chair at our kitchen’s island, singing and coloring with his beloved pieces of crayon. Our usual conversations together, while doing a household activity such as this, would be about what the day ahead of us consisted of, where we intended to go, who we might meet and, of course, why. As I pause to mop up a small puddle I had accidently created while scrubbing one of our larger cooking pots, my son looks up at me and asks, “Mommy, how do my eyes see?”

“What is it, love? How do your eyes see?”

“Yes. How can I see with my eyes?”

I was stunned. That question. That was an amazing question.

I should preface this reaction by saying that my son and I have frequent conversations together about the world in which we live (as in every day, multiple times a day). I am a pharmacist by trade and love both teaching and learning about all things science-related, particularly when it is about how life as we know it came to be, our evolution, our planet and the cosmos in general. I actively pursue science communication, as well as science-inspired art, and I have recently published my own collection of educational science books for babies, toddlers and children. So it may be without surprise that I very much look forward to my son’s daily questions such as, “Why is the grass green?”, “Why do all of my things fall to the ground when I drop them?” and “Why does night happen?”

In addition to simply enjoying these questions, I make a point to fulfill my 3-year-old’s curiosities every time they arise. “The grass is green because it has chlorophyll in it.”; “Gravity pulls everything towards the ground”; “The Earth travels around the sun in space. When the Earth moves, sometimes we can’t see the sun anymore and that’s when day turns into night.” (he knows the planets and is aware we live on the green and blue one called “Earth”).  There are also times when I do not know the answer to one of his questions, to which I reply, “I’m not sure. Let’s read about it together and learn more”, followed by doing that later in the day. My son will listen to all of these responses, contemplate over them with perhaps another question or two and, upon deciding he is content, subsequently inquire about our dog, the sneakers I happen to be wearing, or if there is anything interesting amidst the credit cards in my wallet that might be worth examining further, after all have been removed from their otherwise organized pocket-homes and scattered across our carpet.

Today though, this question was different. It was an observation-based inquiry similar to others he’s asked before but there was a level of awareness intertwined within each endearingly and slightly-mispronounced word that struck me as nothing short of amazing. My initial thought to this question was that it certainly was beyond that of a toddler. Or was it really? What is to say a child at this age could not ask something like this? Would I be content upon realizing my child’s curiosities were fully satiated by learning his shapes; to taking an interest in only his toys; to be less than intrigued by anything if it is not colorfully presented in a rhyming and sing-song way with lights and giggling and glitter? Why would today’s question about eyesight be something so unexpected from a toddler? I then asked myself – Why should this be so unexpected?  And to this I took a seat next to my little one, crayon still in his hand, and I explain the parts of the eye, how we use light to see, how our brains make sense of it all and in turn how that becomes our interpretation and picture of our environment. He pauses for a moment thinking about what I had just said. My son then looks up at me and says, “Neat”, and continues coloring. The faucet is still running, the dishes are still waiting for my return and I am both surprised and elated at what just happened.

Later that evening and well beyond my son’s bedtime, I decided to do some reading about children’s learning and science education. I am neither an expert in child development nor is my background in psychology; rather, I am a medical professional and scientist with an insatiable appetite for “why” that my son has seemingly inherited. It is also not the first time I have delved into these topics as they are concepts that I challenged myself with while writing my children’s science books. My toddler wants to learn about leaves, so why not show him that leaves are made of cells? Or that his hand is also made of cells? The world is filled will an innumerable amount of amazing teachable moments, both miniscule and enormous; why limit learning to what is only visibly apparent? Is microbiology really off-limits? What about astronomy and astrophysics? And so I decided to write this article about why science and engagement is not only fascinating to me, but also critical for even the youngest of children.

A child’s brain undergoes a striking amount of development within the first 5 years of life. We have an idea of when neurons are formed as well as roughly how many; however, we are still mapping out how exactly this translates into intellect and the ability to understand. National Geographic published an article in January 2015 entitled Baby Brains (1), that touched upon this effort to learn more. It dove into several studies that sought to splice the fine line between nature and nurture and truly decipher how one could go from a wriggling and ear-piercing squealing state of limited mobility to that of an acrobat willing to, not only vault over the couch’s ottoman as a preferable method of traversing the living room, but also vehemently insist that his pasta lunch be served void of any kind of sauce or cheese.

Amongst several other studies, the work of two pediatric psychologists from the University of Kansas was presented. Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd Risley analyzed how children and adults interacted within 42 families in an effort to understand vocabulary development and its downstream implications on the child’s rate of learning (2). Taking into consideration socioeconomic status and the education-level of the parents, children from families who received a higher education were noted to have heard 2,153 words per hour. Those from average working-class families heard 1,251 words per hour, while children from families that were on welfare heard about 616 words per hour. The cumulative difference in words heard by the child on each end of the socioeconomic spectrum before the age of 5 was recorded as 30 million. It was determined that this early linguistic exposure had a resounding impact on the child’s success in later years. Those who heard more words as babies and toddlers had higher IQ scores and fared better in primary school versus those that did not, although it is important to note that other factors within the lives of these families could have additionally impacted these outcomes as well.

It is one thing to hear words, but how those words are delivered is just as important to a child’s learning. Dr. Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist from the University of Washington, demonstrated the relationship between learning and the method of exposure by studying 9-month-old babies from English-speaking families and introducing them to the Mandarin language (3). Babies have a keen ability within the first few months of life to discern between sounds produced by various languages. As such, and over the course of 4 weeks, this study’s objective was to test the infant’s ability to distinguish between the linguistic sounds produced while speaking Mandarin in comparison to English-sounds, when experienced in different ways. In order to accomplish this, babies were divided into 3 groups, each uniquely exposed to the Mandarin language: children interacting in-person with an individual speaking Mandarin, children who watched and listened to said individual on video and children whose only exposure to the language was listening to the individual speak via an audio recording. It was discovered that only the group of children who experienced the Mandarin language in-person could identify a difference in the sounds produced when compared to the English language. No distinction could be made between the other two groups, in which it was concluded that no learning was observed in these children.

All these studies focus on a child’s development, their ability to learn and the most effective methods and environments for teaching, so you may be asking, ‘what does this have to do with science?’. It is true that these studies address how to approach a child’s learning during their youngest years, but the term ‘learning’ is an intensely broad one that encapsulates thousands of individual moments accumulating to the point of having acquired new knowledge. Those moments are not scheduled or predictable. Rather, they all originate from sporadic and frequent questions. The questions posed by many young children might not seem scientific at first, yet upon closer inspection we realized that they intrinsically are. “Why is the sky blue?” is a perfect example of that foundational scientific knowledge wanting to be explored. Science at its most basic is the ability to continually ask ‘why?’, particularly as a result of multiple observations. “Why is the grass green?”, “Why do all of my things fall to the ground when I drop them?”, “Why does night happen?”, the examples I gave previously from my son are all, by nature, scientific inquiries. To overlook these questions would be to stifle a potential wonderment in learning about the world around him and, in turn, lead to the possible hindrance of pursuing science whether knowingly done or not. Given the conclusions rendered from studies such as those by Hart, Risley and Kuhl, the lack of reservation to dive into a topic as well as the in-person and in-the-moment engagement are critical for a child’s ability to learn as well as their understanding of that new knowledge.

My son and I talk together constantly throughout the day about his observations, what he thinks of this leaf or that rock. I also read to him daily either the books that I created myself as well as those from other talented authors and illustrators. To hinder my child’s natural aptitude towards science would be to mute his interest in the world around him. More simply stated, my brushing-off his questions would stifle his drive to learn. In my humble opinion, I cannot bring myself to do that.

Carl Sagan has succinctly summarized the thoughts presented here in a statement quoted from his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (4). For as much as we can show how child development can be improved, much work is still to be done with regards to recognizing the thousands of daily moments upon which the opportunity for development and learning presents itself:

“I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world’s birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: ‘What did you expect the Moon to be, square?’ Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it and another child has been lost to science. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I can’t for the life of me understand.”

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
1. Bhattacharjee Y. (2016) The First Year: Baby Brains. National Geographic. Jan 2016.
2. Hart B, ET AL. (2016) The Early Catastrophe. American Federation of Teachers, Spring 2003:4-9.
3. Kuhl PK, ET AL. (2003) Foreign-language Experience in Infancy: Effects of Short-term Exposure and Social Interaction on Phonetic Learning. PNAS 100.15: 9096-101.
4. Sagan C. (1995) The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.

 


Thomai Dion is a pharmacist, mom, author, artist and science communicator. She obtained her doctorate from the University of Rhode Island.

 


 

Edited by: Tiago Marques(Section Editor), Maria Inês Vicente (Science Communication office) and Ivo Marcelo (Section Editor)

 


 

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