Extensive research shows that babies are scientific and systematic in their playful exploration of the world
Laura Schulz, associate MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences, has carried out research showing that children as ‘scientist’ is not merely an analogy for childhood development but in fact is descriptive of what children do and the way that they play and learn.
Schulz’s PhD research, done with Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik, investigated the theory that children’s representations of the world resemble scientific theories that allow them to form categories and identify relationships between different things. It studied the process children use to draw conclusions based on observed causes and effects.
Once at MIT, Schulz’s research examined how babies generate evidence through their exploration. She has found that babies carry out very systematic processes in their play, forming hypotheses and testing them against observed evidence using scientific principles – isolating variables, recognising when evidence is contrary to their assumptions and positing unobserved variables to explain novel events. “All of these abilities that we think of as scientific abilities emerged because of the hardest problem of early childhood learning, which is how to get accurate abstract representations from sparse, noisy data,” says Schulz. Her research has also shown how babies and children decide how much effort a task is worth, what stimulates curiosity, what determines different strategies of seeking help versus exploration and what supports their exploration and development.
Some of the findings from Schultz’s studies.
Babies test individual variables separately
One study showed that when babies were given ambiguous evidence about how to make a toy work they carried out methodical experiments within their play to test individual variables. The babies tested each possible variable in turn to ascertain how toys worked just as scientists also design experiments to test individual variables separately.
Babies can work out the properties of sets of objects
In one study the ability of babies to work out the properties of sets of objects based on very limited evidence.
Babies were shown three blue balls pulled from a box, all of which squeaked when squeezed by the researcher. The babies were then handed a yellow ball from the box.
What the babies did with the yellow ball depended on the colour make-up of the box of balls. When pulled from a box of mostly blue balls the babies squeezed their yellow one, suggesting that they generalised the quality of squeaking to all the balls. But if most of the balls in the box were yellow the babies were much less likely to squeeze their yellow one, suggesting that they believed the blue balls were a rare squeaking exception.
Babies, like scientists, care whether evidence is randomly sampled or not. They use this awareness to develop expectations and act accordingly.
Instruction results in less exploration
Another recent experiment explored how children responded when given instruction compared to their actions when allowed to explore on their own. Schulz found that children who were shown a feature of the toy – how to make it squeak – were less likely to discover the other things the toy could do than children who played without instruction. “There’s a trade-off of instruction versus exploration,” Schultz says. “If I instruct you more, you will explore less, because you assume that if other things were true, I would have demonstrated them.”
Not understanding how something works stimulates curiosity
Schultz found that when children knew how a toy worked they chose to explore a new box offered. However, children who had ambiguous or confusing evidence chose to continue playing with the toy they hadn’t yet worked out.
Babies use evidence to decide on the best strategy for working out the toys
One experiment showed that babies reacted differently on being shown different combinations of adults succeeding or failing with a task. They chose different strategies, asking the researcher for help, asking their mums for help, or just exploring on their own when no adult seemed to be succeeding at the task. Essentially the 15-month-olds were using a tiny bit of statistical data to decide between two fundamentally different strategies for action: utilising adult help or experimenting themselves.
Babies weigh evidence to make decisions on effort allocation
Babies who had watched an adult visibly struggle when doing two tasks before they succeeded tried harder at their own difficult task, compared to babies who saw an adult succeed without effort. It isn’t logical or possible to put effort into everything, this study showed that babies are able to use evidence to make decisions about effort allocation.
Furthermore, in this study they found that direct and supportive interaction with the baby – using their name, making eye contact, talking directly to them – made the babies try harder than when there was no direct interaction.
“What we found, consistent with many other studies, is that using those pedagogical cues is an amplifier. The effect doesn’t vanish, but it becomes much weaker without those cues,” Schulz says.