Tuesday, 6 August 2013

It's not simply make believe!

I have noticed recently a trend to giving toddlers and young children explanations for various phenomena that they observe, presumably in the hope of building their knowledge of the world and how it works.  While part of me sees this as a useful idea, part of me also rebels at:
  1. the need to have a factual explanation for everything
  2. introducing concepts and words that are really beyond a child's need to know.
I guess that I'm old fashioned but I think that pushing a rational explanation for everything does take away some of the 'magic' of childhood.  And that is precisely why it is done...magic doesn't exist, so using it as an explanation is misleading a child and creating ideas that will have to be unlearnt in the future.  In this view, cultural icons like the tooth fairy, Father Christmas/Santa Claus, and any religious belief need to be discarded. I can't help thinking that this rather undervalues the ability of children to grow and mature in their understandings and imposes a rather grey and colourless world on children.

I don't disregard the wonder of science, the magnitude of worlds without and within, the advances of knowledge that have helped revolutionise the world in health, communications and every field of endeavour.  I read a while ago that Albert Einstein, the great physicist, was a great believer in imagination, intuition and creativity as an aid to scientific thinking, which prompts me to think that children in time need to grow in knowledge and understanding of their world, but they also need to keep alive their imaginations.

Children have great imaginations. They can laugh and play growly bears or snapping crocodiles from an early age, also learning quickly to express a pretend fear of such creatures.  I watched a short video of a little chap, probably less than 2, bursting into giggles when he put his finger into the top of his water bottle.  I don't know what was funny about putting his finger into the water bottle, but he did...almost a pre-verbal imagination! They can dress up and be superheroes saving the world, monkeys swinging through the branches, doctors and nurses curing their dolls, old ladies having a cup of tea, experimenting with different roles and a wide variety of fields of activity.

I saw a blog post recently introducing science to a child of maybe 3.  He was having fun with water play and found if he put enough stones in his beaker of water that the water would eventually overflow.  The parent was pleased to be able to give him the name of displacement of water for this phenomenon.  I though it might have been more useful for him to observe his experiment with different conditions: different sized beaker, bigger stones or sand etc and then to simply share his observations and wonder, but perhaps I would just have missed a learning opportunity!

I have a friend who is doing research with medical notes from the Nineteenth Century.  She says they are full of detailed descriptions of people's tongues and physical appearance from which various diagnoses were drawn.  These may not have been accurate diagnoses by today's standards with all sorts of machines to help, but what impresses her is the closeness of the observations.  That is the starting point for science, from these observations and active imagination, improved machinery come modern medical advances.  As Professor Julius Sumner Miller used to say on TV back in the seventies, the question becomes "why is it so?" and the imagination is let loose to develop theories that stand up to testing in all sorts of conditions.

So let's keep childhood a time for creativity, wonder, experimenting, and observing and let our children gradually grow into a formal understanding of the world alongside having an active imagination.

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