A Baby and Her Baubles
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a wise man in many regards but my favorite of his insights was this:
“The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force…”
He must have recognized the depth and breadth of learning a young child does when he or she plays. In a few short years they learn what can be considered the foundation of physics, environmental science, biology, and much more. All of that science learning is in addition to physical, social-emotional, and communication milestones. But how do we know what a young child is learning? Well that question is akin to one of the oldest questions of humankind and to explore the answer we have to first consider ourselves.
How do you know what you know? It is a weird question and one that I never considered until I was almost 30 years old and taking my very first education psychology class. Knowledge is arguably inside you. Your ideas are in your head. Your intuition is often said to be in your gut. However, it naturally follows that we begin to talk about knowing that we know something because we can talk about it or demonstrate it.
Take, for example, knowing the alphabet. In your brain you can probably think about all the ways you know and understand the alphabet. You think to yourself, “I can sing the alphabet song.” or “When I look at the letters, I know each letter’s name and the sound(s) it makes.” or “I know how to use my hand to write and/or type all the letters (big and little).” and perhaps “I know the sign language for each letter.”
Fair enough. Now, convince me.
If I were sitting there with you, would you choose to sing? Or would you pick up a pencil and start writing the letters on a piece of paper? Either way, if I were to recognize and believe that you know the alphabet then I would have to know the alphabet in all its forms, too. And we would have to agree that singing the alphabet song counts as evidence of your knowledge. So does writing the letters. Right?
This scenario of you demonstrating your understanding of the alphabet to me is exactly the conundrum that plagues education. In fact, there are groups of professionals who dedicate their entire careers to studying the minutia of knowledge, learning, and what counts as valid and reliable evidence what people know. And while researchers are studying those details teachers and students are in the trenches living it...including early childhood educators and the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers for whom they care.
When early childhood educators commit to developmentally appropriate practice they cannot necessarily rely on what their students say or write as evidence of learning. They have to trust more, observe more. I believe the children make it obvious that they are learning, if not exactly what they are learning.
If we agree that knowledge, learning and evidence can and should look different for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers than it does for their elementary counterparts, then we can step away from teaching toddlers the mechanics of writing letters. Instead of asking our babies to convince us that they know the alphabet (and other pre-academic skills) we can just let them learn. Instead of “teaching” them, why not learn with them? By doing so, we might see what Emerson saw. In fact, I believe that an adult amidst his babies, toddlers and preschoolers can learn about light, friction, gravity, muscular force...
Ready? Let’s imagine what it might look like when a baby studies physics, a toddler does environmental science, and a preschooler learns human biology.
To begin, I argue that babies, toddlers and preschoolers are experts in the nature of science. They have the curiosity, ability to observe, and persistence in experimentation that is necessary for success in science learning.
Physics (i.e., Dropping Things)
A developmental milestone for babies is learning their hands. Right around when they are three months old they are able to grab something they want. Not-too-surprisingly, dropping things is part of the learning process and it follows that a baby starts playing with gravity. Over and over again, a baby will hold something in his or her hand, let it go, and watch it fall. I see that process of making an observation and performing the dropping experiment as baby science, physics no less.
As the child grows, so too does the sophistication of his or her physics studies. The child no longer is limited to the simple vertical drop from a high chair. Once he or she has more dexterity, projectile motion can be studied. When a young child throws something (be it a toy, book, pacifier, or other object), the arc of the object offers a new way to experiment. Most likely a child won’t really be able to aim very well but he or she will be able to change the trajectory of what they throw...all the time learning physics. For example, a pacifier can go almost straight up and down to land inside the crib. Or, more likely, it can be thrown across the room. Either way, the way the pacifier moves is something a very young child can study.
Of course, a baby is not going talk about details of what he or she knows about gravity. And I would fall over backwards if a baby could use symbols to express the mathematical relationship used to explain Newton’s Law of Gravitation. The idea that a young child should do such things is laughable. Hence, my insistence that playing with gravity is enough.
Environmental Science (Picking Things Up)
I remember walking in the park with my toddlers and feeling like cigarette butts were the bane of my existence. My young children picked up so many interesting things but they did not discriminate between natural objects like rocks, pine cones, bugs, and leaves, and human-made objects like cigarette butts, food wrappers, and shards of glass from broken bottles.
I quickly realized that unless I wanted them to stop picking up everything outdoors, which would squash their curiosity and their learning, I would have to make the endeavor both a learning opportunity and manage the logistics of having toddlers picking up litter. I started calling them environmentalists. Just in case we couldn’t find a trash can near by, I decided that we could stash litter in my diaper bag along with dirty diapers and wipes. I carried hand sanitizer.
It was seeing their picking-up-things-outdoors as preschool environmental science was the most important piece for me. When I was able to see the value of what my children were doing, I was able to solve the smaller but important issue of safety. What is more, my children and I were doing environmental science in a very authentic way. We were learning about man-made things versus nature-made things. We had to consider safety for ourselves and others. We became active members of our community, recognized in playgrounds and parks, inviting others to join us clean up a little at a time.
Picking things up is about more than the fine motor skills required to perform the task. When picking things up is situated outdoors, it becomes a profoundly important learning opportunity: Young children learn science (among other things)! We need only to recognize it and value it.
Human Physiology (Boo Boo Biology)
Physiology is the study of the living things and their parts. It is obvious that young children begin their science training in this field early and revisit the topic often. First lessons include naming the parts of the body. Answering the question “Where is your nose?” is not just a cute trick. It is a child’s first lesson in physiology. As they grow, young children become more and more acquainted with the parts of their body, how the parts work together, and even consider the parts they cannot see. But I think the most interesting physiology learning happens when young children are preschoolers and they can learn what I call “boo boo biology.”
When my daughter fell on the sidewalk and scraped her knee, we had a wonderful opportunity to talk about boo boo biology. I used metaphor to help her understand what was happening. When she was worried about her knee feeling hot, I was able to calm her by saying that a team of good germs was working fast to keep out bad germs. Blood gushed to keep the “work site” clean. We apply ointment to get special building blocks to her body quickly. The scabs that formed were construction cones to keep bad germs out while her body repaired itself. Through story and metaphor, I was able to offer her two valuable things. First, she was comforted to know why things were happening. Second, she learned a little science.
Dropping things, picking things up, and boo boo biology are only three examples of where young children have an opportunity to learn science. If we believe in our children and their capacity to learn through play, I think that we can paint a pretty amazing picture of science in the early years.