By Samuel Berlinski

Little Scientist

It is undisputed that children, from birth to the start of formal schooling, need to be stimulated in order to develop their motor, socio-emotional and cognitive skills. But how should preschool-age children be cognitively stimulated? And at the same time, how structured should that experience be?

An experiment conducted by Bonawitz and her colleagues in 2011 is a clear example of the tension that can exist between teaching and spontaneous discovery at preschool age. Eighty-five children with an average age of 5 participated in this experiment at a science museum in the United States. The researchers used a toy that they designed, which consisted of a series of colored plastic pipes attached to a base. However, the toy had four special features that were not obvious. The toy squeaked when a yellow-colored tube was pulled out from inside another, and there was more to discover; by pressing different buttons, lights and music were activated, and it also had hidden mirrors.

The children were randomly assigned to one of four situations. In all of them, the experimenter brought the toy out from under a table, and then the child was presented with one of the following four learning conditions:

  1. Pedagogical situation: The experimenter said, “Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” The experimenter then pulled the yellow tube out to produce the squeak sound. She said, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!”
  2. Interrupted situation: The first part of the script was the same as in the pedagogical condition, but the experimenter left before saying, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!” with the excuse that she had forgotten something.
  3. Naïve situation: The experimenter said, “I just found this toy! See this toy?” Then, as if by accident, she pulled out the yellow tube and the toy made a noise. She said, “Huh, did you see that? Let me try that again.”
  4. Baseline situation: The experimenter simply said, “Wow, see this toy? Look at this!” Then she left it on the table without having pulled out the yellow tube.

In all four situations, the experimenter finished by saying, “Wow, isn’t that cool? I’m going to let you play and see if you can figure out how this toy works. Let me know when you’re done,” and she left the child to play.

The results of the experiment were as follows: the children who participated in the pedagogical situation played with the toy for less time and explored the toy less than children in the other three situations. At the same time, these children spent more time playing with the yellow tube than with the other features of the toy and, therefore, found fewer actions than the other children.

This experiment is part of the relatively recent literature on learning at preschool age (see Gopnik’s review of the literature from 2012), which indicates that children learn as if they were little scientists, through information they gain by watching and listening to others and through individual exploration that allows them to test their hypotheses against data. In a structured learning environment, where children receive information from a person who “knows,” the set of hypotheses that they explore is limited to the information provided by the teacher. In contrast, when the children’s learning space is unrestricted by the suggestions of the teacher, they explore more freely to evaluate their hypotheses.

What educational policy implications do these results have? First, in my opinion, we haven’t yet identified which is the best place—whether at home or at school—for cognitive stimulation of preschool-age children. What is obvious, however, is that the best place is the one that provides better stimulation. But what is the best stimulation? Children have a lot to learn and, therefore, an exclusive context of play without structured learning parameters can invite exploration. Nonetheless, if an adult does not fulfill the role of facilitator as children explore, this environment may not favor children who have difficulty discovering on their own, which could cause delays at the start of formal schooling. On the other hand, a very structured, academic context can restrict experimentation and the development of exploration skills in children.

What does this mean for teaching preschool-age children in Latin America?  The balance between exploration and structure seems delicate and difficult to achieve in highly heterogeneous contexts where, in many cases, those who teach (both at home and at school) do not have sufficient education, skill and/or experience. I think the most attractive alternative is to invest in the creation of educational materials accompanied by simple guidelines for their implementation. This requires many hours of work, experimentation and professional development, which, if supported by a single government, would be difficult to achieve on the scale necessary to reach the children who need it most. However, relatively low-cost multinational initiatives (supported by multilateral organizations such as the IDB) could help improve the learning of children in the region.

Samuel Berlinski is Lead Economist in the IDB’s Research Department. He has published numerous articles, particularly on labor and educational issues.

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