Thursday, 3 March 2011

Children, science and the perpetual why

The school half term holidays have just finished and we did very little. To steal a line from Damon Alburn, we mostly “put our trousers on, had a cup of tea and thought about leaving the house”. When we finally ventured out we didn’t do anything very structured.

What has this got to do with science?

Kids are natural born experimenters. They excel at exploring, observing, testing and retesting. They have wild imaginations and aren’t limited by rational grown-up thinking. They discover so much if left to follow their own crazy ideas: with mud and sticks or with the contents of a recycling box.

So, wherever possible, I try to give my kids that freedom. I aim to make the house a place where they can play without fear of breaking adult stuff. I move anything I find I am nagging them to leave alone, and our grotty carpets and sofa are staying until they are old enough to understand.

Much of what we classify as naughty behaviour is simply experimentation. We encourage babies to post and poke and push the buttons on their flashy toys but we get cross if they transfer these skills to our stereo system. It’s quite a lot to expect little ones to understand the difference.

I must admit that my parenting style has evolved in part to make my own life easier. Back to back children’s activities becomes a little dull (especially as a passive observer) and I’d rather get jobs done at home whilst being available to assist with free range play. (I should also point out that this half term, my boys went to a childminder for a few hours every morning so I could do some work. I’m not sure we could have spent all day doing nothing much.)

The benefit of such a hands off approach is that kids can explore under their own steam rather than being straight jacketed by someone else’s ideas. The downside is the mess. But it can be liberating to learn to ignore the chaos for as long as possible and just clear up when it gets too much.

One day during half term my two year old said “Why?” for the first time, reminding me of his brother’s iterative questioning at the same age. “Why” is such a brilliant question – one little word and adults tell you all sorts of interesting things. I remember long conversations along the following lines:

“Mummy, why is it that fruit called an orange?”
“Because its coloured orange I suppose”
“Why is it coloured orange? (1. mummy in good mood) Well because there are things called photons that are either reflect or absorbed from the surface of the orange ...... (2. mummy having a bad day) Because it just is...”.

The problem with answering as option 1 is that the response will always be another:


And you end up struggling to talk about waves and subatomic particles, knowing that more “whys” will follow and wondering how long it will be before you finally lose your rag.

This kind of questioning reminds me of laddering – a psychotherapy tool used to uncover hidden core values. It certainly pushes all sorts of buttons when used to extreme by kids.

The best way to keep your sanity is to pretend that instead of asking “why?” the child has said “tell me more about that”. This is really what they mean, and it is a much more pleasant to respond to.

There is one question my kids ask that I do my best not to answer:

“How do I...”

I say things like “hmmm”,  “I see what your trying to do...” , “that’s a tricky one...” for a bit and encourage them to think of their own response, which is normally much more creative than my own.

Later in the week, my eldest found a ruler with multiplication tables on the back. After studying it for some time he came and told me the equations were wrong. He’s just started school and has been taught about addition and subtraction but not multiplication and division. He’d looked at the multiplication signs and thought they were for adding up.

We sat down with a piece of paper and I explained about multiplication and division and the moment the penny dropped his response was to jiggle and giggle with delight.

We often complain when children display negative emotions in their bodies (temper tantrums, sibling attacks) but it was heart warming to see a show of pleasure in such a visual way.

In order to encourage your child’s scientific side it doesn’t seem necessary to do anything special – just be around to answer their questions (not being afraid to give them technical answers) and encourage them to think of solutions themselves. Then put your feet up amongst the disorder and let them loose....all in the name of science.

Related post on this blog

Some other stuff I’ve written about parenting

The picture is a corner of my house just now - a prize for spotting the errant can of beans (how did that get there?)

1 comment:

  1. With regards to the allowing children to play in any environment, I completely agree. We've had expensive broken ornaments here because I've always said that objects are just object; limbs are more important!

    My sister used to have glass tables, sharp edges, designer furniture and ornaments everywhere. I tried to warn her about when she was pregnant and how much she would have to change her house but she refused. And she ended up with plastocine, play doh, felt tips, sick, milk, you name it, it was on her furniture.

    CJ xx