Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik gave a TED talk in 2011 on the topic of what babies think.  Dr. Gopnik’s work parallels that of Patricia Kuhl in referring to the statistical prowess of infants, indicating that babies absorb immense amounts of data that their brains must make sense of in order to learn.

According to Gopnik, babies are designed to learn.  Infants and young children are “the research and development division of the human species” in that they make “complicated calculations on conditional probabilities” thereby forming experimental hypotheses through their play.

In her TED talk, Gopnik refers to her colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, Christine La Gare, as defining play as a series of experiments.  La Gare maintains that when adults observe children playing and ask them to explain things, children are in essence conducting experiments and forming hypotheses.  During her presentation, Gopnik highlights one particular child in La Gare’s lab as he investigates how to make a wooden box light up.  Throughout his quest, the four year old explores different possibilities based on what he already knows and through trial and error, finally arrives at the correct conclusion.

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Initially, the boy discovers that the box to his left lights up when the red hexagon and the yellow heart are placed on top of it.Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.23.41 AM He then hypothesizes that the other box will also light up if he places two foam blocks on top of it.Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.23.58 AM Upon recognizing that the two blocks placed on top will not yield the expected result, the boy rejects this hypothesis and reverses the order of the blocks, making sure that the yellow is on top of the red, matching the lit up box.Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.24.20 AM

When his probable hypotheses prove to be unsuccessful, the boy muses that perhaps there is no electricity attached to the unlit box.
Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.25.33 AM Without giving up, the boy presses on and with the help of the researcher places the two boxes with the foam blocks on top of one another forming yet another hypothesis.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.27.34 AMFinally, after four unsuccessful tries, he succeeds in lighting up the box by placing all four foam blocks on top.

The researchers conclude that children, as evidenced by the behavior of the four year old boy, are conscious, attentive and hyper aware of their surroundings.  They are creative, imaginative, innovative and openminded in their learning and exploration of their surroundings.  The boy looked for patterns and previous experience to help him understand and solve the problem in front of him, but eventually discovered the solution by trying completely new solutions.

As parents we can learn a valuable lesson from this research by recognizing the importance of time and space for exploration that enabled the boy to successfully turn the light on in both boxes.  Although not explicitly mentioned in the TED talk, two key ingredients in the boy’s success were persistence and tenacity.  Do all children possess these qualities and if not, why?

If children are not given the opportunities to solve their own problems and the time and space to work through their own exploration, chances are high that they will have a hard time developing persistence and tenacity.  Babies brains are wired to learn, but it is our responsibility as caregivers to give them the time, space and opportunities to try out their hypotheses in order for that learning to occur.

Watch Gopnik’s TED Talk below: