Preschoolers do not seem to take notice of physical phenomena. However, several studies by developmental psychologists at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) show that they are in fact keen on exploring the world around them.
Researchers Maartje Raijmakers and Tessa van Schijndel at the UvA performed a series of studies in cooperation with Rooske Franse and Amito Haarhuis from the NEMO science centre. They learned that small children do not simply push buttons and pull levers while they walk around NEMO. The children are naturally inclined to experiment, revealing variations in the ways they manipulate their surroundings. The majority of NEMO exhibits are designed to illustrate certain phenomena. Take the roller bin, which shows that an object's weight does not determine how fast it rolls downward. Small children automatically experiment with this type of hands-on exhibit by repeatedly rolling different cylinders down and seeing which one lands first, but they also undertake unintentional experiments, such as striking the cylinders against each other to hear the range of sounds this produces. Offering parents brief instructions on how they can participate in the way their children play during their museum visit can help the children's experimental play become more sophisticated.
Children spontaneously investigate the phenomena around them in other contexts too, such as during outdoor playtime at day care. A two-year old boy playing outdoors, for example, uses boards to build a road. He repeatedly rolls a ball along the road, modifying the length of the road and the speed of the ball several times. Each time he pays close attention to the way the ball rolls. By doing so he is conducting his own mini-experiment. Here, too, adult participation can provide an additional incentive.
Tessa J. P. van Schijndel, Rooske K. Franse, and Maartje E. J. Raijmakers (accepted). ‘The Exploratory Behavior Scale: Assessing young visitors' hands-on behavior in science museums'. Accepted for publication in Science Education.
Tessa J. P. van Schijndel, Elly Singer, Han L.J. van der Maas, and Maartje E. J. Raijmakers (in press). ‘The effects of a sciencing program on young children's exploratory play in the sandpit', in: European Journal of Developmental Psychology.