By Veronica Hunnicut
The early years of a child’s life are consumed by a desire to explore and experiment with objects. Well-known developmental psychologist Jean Piaget fittingly called young children “natural scientists” because of this inclination. By tapping into children’s tendency to explore and discover, parents, teachers and other adults in children’s lives can actually help nurture and extend their learning.
From the moment babies enter the world, their curiosity sparks a need to observe and classify objects and actions. Their brains actually change as a result of the new things they learn. As children continue to grow and explore, new discoveries help them enrich, modify, reorganize – and sometimes replace – their initial theories with quite different ideas. This type of hands-on learning explains why a child may scrutinize a new object in an effort to figure out how it works, or experiment with sound and movement as she learns how to use her body to communicate.
Children need safe environments where they can experiment freely and take risks without the fear of being told “That’s not how you’re supposed to do that.” When we support children’s natural tendency to try things out, we are cheering them on to discover and tackle new challenges creatively. This is an important step in helping them build determination and confidence in their own abilities.
Adults can encourage infants and toddlers to explore and learn in simple and fun ways:
- Give your baby colorful, safe objects that he can examine by looking, feeling, tasting and smelling.
- Talk to your baby, providing a play-by-play of everything he does. This commentary helps babies organize and understand what’s around them.
- Fill a large shallow bowl with water and provide your baby or toddler with simple scooping tools for endless exploration and fun. You can do this in the bathtub as well.
- Fill a large bowl or shallow tub with rice or sand. Your child will enjoy sifting this material through his fingers, picking it up and pouring it out. Be sure to keep a close eye on your little one to make sure he doesn’t try to eat any of it – note that some dried beans can be a choking hazard for children.
- Make “cloud dough” with flour and cooking oil (8 parts flour and 1 part oil). It feels powdery like flour one moment and then moldable like damp sand the next. It’s easy to make and the unique texture will amuse your child to no end.
Learning through play and exploration allows young children to investigate topics that interest them in more depth. And, offering safe and supportive environments for little ones to explore in helps them develop into well-rounded, creative learners. Create opportunities for your child to experiment with new objects, textures, or other phenomena on a regular basis – the crib, playroom, bathtub and backyard are all excellent “laboratories” for young children!