A while back on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme I heard something that’s stuck with me. Apparently, David Attenborough was once being interviewed by a journalist who posed the question, ‘When did you become interested in the natural world?’ Attenborough simply replied, ‘When did you stop?’
This anecdote made me think of a few articles I have read over the last few months about children being ‘natural scientists.’ One such article was a blog post by Jonah Lehrer, who covered a study that examined the way in which young children, aged four and five, solved a simple problem involving beads and a box which played music when certain beads were placed on it. Here’s a section of Lehrer’s post:
“The lesson of the research is that even little kids react to ambiguity in a systematic and specific fashion. Their mode of playing is really a form of learning, a way of figuring out how the world works…
Much as science goes beyond simple experiments, so too does exploratory play,” the researchers write. “Exploratory play is a complex phenomenon, presumably subserving a range of functions other than the generating informative evidence…However, to the extent that children acquire causal knowledge through exploration, the current results begin to bridge the gap between scientific inquiry and child’s play.”
I personally believe that this last statement may be a bit too far. The first section quoted echoes much of what Robin Dunbar and others have talked about before, that we all have a natural ability to investigate the world around us. However, to say that the outcomes of studies such as this one “bridge the gap between scientific inquiry and child’s play” overlooks much of what it takes to be a scientist and implies that many people have simply lost a natural ability to ‘do’ science as they get older.
Maybe it would be more helpful to think in terms of the fact everyone has a natural inquisitive side that can help a child grow into scientist? Then we could have children and adults of all ages reconnect with this inner child to help them connect with science?