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Toddlers express the basic aspects of scientific thinking: finding cause and effect by the experimental method.

Put a 2– to 4-year old in a sandbox with a shovel and a pail, and left to experiment, the child will figure out what works to get sand in the pail or move it to a bigger pail.  Give the child a music machine that turns on or off with two independent switches, and the child will find how to turn it on and off at will.  These are the findings of Alison Gopnick, who performed experiments with children at play and became convinced that, contrary to beliefs that children act irrationally and chaotically, the basics of scientific reasoning are present in the brains of young children.  She wrote in Science,

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.

Source: Alison Gopnick, “Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications,” Science, 28 September 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6102 pp. 1623–1627, DOI: 10.1126/science.1223416.

The paper was summarized on Medical Xpress, “What looks like play may really be a science experiment,” and on Live Science, “The Preschool Laboratory: Young Children Think Like Scientists.”….

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