Young Children Think Like Scientists

My son, Alexander, when he was six months old

Research shows that young children think in similar ways as scientists do. With the growing realization of how crucial early childhood education is, these latest results point to great opportunities in introducing science to children. A child does employ a natural way of addressing problems and experimentation. In fact, we may not be aware of this, but everyone, including adults, do this. There are still, however,  major differences between the natural problem solving and experimentation that a young child does, and what a scientist or any other person who practices the scientific method actually does. Scientists employ controls in designing experiments and analyzing data. This requires putting aside prejudgments, formulating a verifiable hypothesis, and critically evaluating the results of works of other scientists. This difference is highlighted by being able to account for what one observes in the light of what is already known. Nevertheless, the motivation is present as early as our toddler years and introducing science at an early age can work by taking advantage of what young children are inclined to do. To scientists, doing science is indeed a play as opposed to a torturing job. We do enjoy it.

Alison Gopnik at the University of California, Berkeley, had been working in this area. A recent review by her has been recently published in the journal Science. The abstract of that paper is posted here as well as a TED video describing her work. A video released by the National Science Foundation is also shared in this post.

Vol. 337 no. 6102 pp. 1623-1627 
DOI: 10.1126/science.1223416

Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications

  1. Alison Gopnik
  1. Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science. Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways. These discoveries have implications for early childhood education and policy. In particular, they suggest both that early childhood experience is extremely important and that the trend toward more structured and academic early childhood programs is misguided.

"Babies and young children are like the R&D division of the human species," says psychologist Alison Gopnik. Her research explores the sophisticated intelligence-gathering and decision-making that babies are really doing when they play.Alison Gopnik takes us into the fascinating minds of babies and children, and shows us how much we understand before we even realize we do." -

Babies Are Born Scientists
New research methods reveal that babies and young children learn by rationally testing hypotheses, analyzing statistics and doing experiments much as scientists do

Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke with NSF about her research on young children's early learning. Credit: National Science Foundation

Being shown how to do something has advantages, for both young children and for scientists, as well as disadvantages. Most importantly, being taught something instead of exploring it for oneself discourages exploration that can lead to new conclusions, and research indicates this is the case for young children, Gopnick said.

The true challenge to education is doing both; maintaining curiosity while instilling discipline, learning hard work while at play, and having one's eyes and ears wide open while standing on the shoulders of giants in the past.