Jessica Glass Kendorski, Ph.D
Director of the Hayden Planetarium and 'rock star' astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has been speaking out lately regarding the math and science achievement (or lack thereof) of American students. He attributes America's lagging in the math and sciences to the way we respond not just to our school-age children but to our toddlers. Dr. Tyson proposes that this downward trend in achievement is a direct result of parents training-out the curiosity of children rather than nurturing this curiosity.
What happens, the kid goes and plays in the mud. "Don't play in the mud; you'll get your clothes ..." There's bugs in the mud. That's kinda cool. They turn over a rock. "You'll get dirt on your clothes." There's millipedes under the rock. Let the kid find the millipedes. Plucks the — off the rose — "Don't break the rose like that; that's a rose." No, they want to see what's inside the rose; it's kinda interesting. The middle is not the same as the outside. Let the experiment run its course. (http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2010/02/neil_degrasse_tyson_on_literac.html)
He has a point. If you look at typical toddler behavior and developmental milestones, you will see a striking resemblance to a scientist employing the scientific method. Specifically, the principles such as observation of a phenomena, generation of a hypothesis, testing of the hypothesis, and replication (toddlers love replication)! This is experiential learning, a particularly effective way to garner knowledge. We learn by doing, and we practice this early on.
From a cognitive development perspective, toddlerhood is rife with cognitive advances in problem solving, defining objects, and understanding of the world around them. If we look at a typical toddler, we can see a young scientist exploring a novel situation to determine the rules and predict what will happen next. Everything is novel to a toddler. The questions abound. What will happen when I dump this cup of milk? Let’s try it and find out. What is hidden in this mound of dirt? Let’s start digging! Or in the case of a toddler I recently observed, what happens when I try to grab this bumble bee? (I guarantee this experiment will not be replicated)!
Toddlers are little scientists. A geologist digs to discover components of the earth. A particle physicist will occasionally destroy objects to explore the tiniest units of matter. An experimental physicist observes and conducts experiments in an attempt to understand physical phenomenon such as gravity. A behavior psychologist studies observable behavior in an attempt to predict the future behavior of others. See a resemblance?
The question arises, how can adults nurture this curiosity in toddlers while simultaneously keeping them safe and minimizing destruction? First, we can allow toddlers to experience things that are safe (not necessarily touching a bumble bee) and allow them to replicate these findings. As Dr. Tyson points out, allow them to play in the dirt, dissect a flower, and dump their milk. They are conducting the important business of figuring out the world. Instead of saying 'no' immediately, wait and allow them to experience. In science the more data points the better; however, maybe for toddlers we employ the three data point rule. A toddler can take apart only three roses in the rosebush and adults can support the learning of what is inside. In addition, adults can encourage appropriate areas with which to conduct experiments. Instead of dumping milk to determine the laws of gravity, how about an area outside to dump water. Whatever the rules, the most important aspect is to allow and encourage hands on exploration of the environment and nurture this innate curiosity. Supporting the curiosity and creativity of a toddler requires some creativity from adults, so in essence toddlers can make adults nurture their own creativity.
If parents and teachers begin to view toddler behavior through the same lens as a scientist, then there may be a shift in the nurturing of this curiosity instead of a propensity to shut it down. Toddlerhood is not the "terrible two's" but rather a time of amazing cognitive, social and language development. Children do not need to be taught curiosity; they just need allowance and encouragement. Allowing a toddler to be curious may be more work for parents and will most certainly require more short-term cleanup of messes. Yet, the benefit of allowing this unbridled exploration of the environment and curiosity will long outweigh the short term benefit of a perfectly ordered environment.
Curiosity is the inherent motivation to learn. Motivation to learn is perhaps one of the most important factors in educational success throughout the school years. It starts early and we all can help cultivate it.