Alison Gopnik is at the center of helping us understand how babies and young children think and learn. She has a lovely article in the July, 2010, issue of Scientific American (pages 76-81) which summarizes new developments in this area. She notes: “Even the youngest children know, experience and learn far more than scientists ever thought possible.”

The Scientist in the CribAuthor of the renowned book The Scientist in the Crib, Dr. Gopnik engagingly presents a number of studies she and her colleagues have conducted over the years to show what goes on in the minds of infants and small children. For instance, they found that: 18-month-olds can understand preferences in other people which differ from their own (“I might want one thing, whereas you want another” — the beginnings of empathy!); babies understand the relation between a statistical sample and a population; and young children use statistical evidence and experiments to determine cause and effect. You might enjoy reading the article to see how Alison and her colleagues conducted these studies.

Alison summarized the studies as follows:

“when children play spontaneously (‘getting into everything’) they are also exploring cause and effect and doing experiments — the most effective way to discover how the world works.”

As parents and educators, we are often so eager to “teach” our children, to help them not make the mistakes we made, that we tend to impose rather than listen. Or, as Cat Stevens said in one of his early songs: “As soon as I could talk, I was ordered to listen.” The idea here is to turn all this on its head, listen to the child, and ask: what is the child interested in?

One organization which is quite tuned in to this work is the Ounce of Prevention. As Board Member Susan Baird notes: “The Ounce was founded in 1982 by Irving Harris and has various programs which focus on early learning opportunities for children.” It now has several preschools (termed Educare Schools) around the country.

In a sense, one can divide development into two overlapping parts, the cognitive and the emotional. The work described above highlights the exciting advances in our understanding how children think and learn, i.e., the cognitive area. We are indebted to Dr. Gopnik and her colleagues for these insights.