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Children need unstructured exploration and time to tackle problems that interest them

The Intellectual Lives of Children

Susan Engel
Harvard University Press
240 pp.
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In a digital, global world where information is projected to double every 12 hours (1), the memorization of facts will become less of a commodity than the ability to think, find patterns, and generate new ideas from old parts (2, 3). Thus, a cradle-to-career approach to educating children must be mindful of how children learn to learn, not just what they learn (4). Combining insight, scientific acumen, and exquisite narrative, The Intellectual Lives of Children allows readers to peer into the minds of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers as they explore and learn in everyday moments, emphasizing what constitutes real learning.

Children are bursting with playful curiosity. By age 3, they ask questions about everything they see—Why does a tree have leaves? Why does the Sun come up each day?—and by age 5, they pose even deeper questions, about God and morals. These questions not only provide fodder for knowledge, they help children discover the causal relationships among things—all with adult mentors by their side.

Children also need time to explore. One child might collect dead things like worms and slugs, and another, assorted leaves of different shapes and colors. These collections, Engel argues, become treasured resources for the discovery of patterns, and they invite even more inquisitiveness. Indeed, the adults who guide this exploration by asking questions themselves reinforce curiosity and innovation. Hidden in these playful encounters are rich opportunities for learning.

Yet explorations take time—the time to meander and discover, the unscheduled time to be bored. As Engel writes, “when children are allowed to dive into a topic thoroughly, they … connect isolated facts in order to generate new ideas.” They learn grit and they learn to have agency over their own learning. As such, the real mental work for children takes place in plain sight as they play—when a child builds a platform of chairs and pillows to retrieve cookies from an out-of-reach cookie jar and when she uses kitchen utensils to fish for the toy that is lodged under the couch.

As adults, we often overlook the fact that learning is happening during periods of unstructured play, or we dismiss these intervals as unproductive. Hurried parents often lack the ability to carve out that time, fearing that their children might be late for their next scheduled activity.

“Watch and listen for twenty minutes in almost any school in the United States and it becomes clear that the educational system does not concern itself with children’s intellectual lives,” admonishes Engel in the opening pages of the book. Instead, she hopes to reenvision schools as “idea factories” built on inspiring curiosity and problem solving: “Imagine assessing students’ progress under some new headings: poses interesting questions, speculates, … articulates important problems and spends time solving them.”

In one lovely example, Engel describes a teacher who challenged her students to construct a record-breaking straw chain that would eventually measure 3.8 miles. “Winning the record would be fun, but the enduring benefit would be coming to grips with vast quantities,” explains the teacher, whose goal was to help the children to better understand the sheer depth of the Mariana Trench.

The puzzles and problems that captivate children and the ways they set about solving them are reminiscent of how philosophers Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn conceptualized the thinking of scientists (5, 6). Both children and scientists bring the tools in their respective arsenals to bear on things that matter to them. Their learning is not linear and is certainly not funneled through flashcards (7).

In the past few decades, developmental science has made great strides in understanding the mental richness of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Engel’s book helps parents and educators see what scientists have learned, offering tips for how to make the learning even more apparent. For example, she encourages parents to see children as active thinkers and suggests that by asking open-ended questions and letting them explore, children will be better prepared to thrive in a complex and ever-changing world.

References and Notes:
1. S. Sorkin, “Thriving in a world of ‘knowledge half-life’,” Enterprising Insights, 5 April 2019.
2. R. M. Golinkoff, K. Hirsh-Pasek, Becoming Brilliant (APA Press, 2016).
3. D. H. Pink, A Whole New Mind (Penguin, 2006).
4. K. Hirsh-Pasek, H. S. Hadani, E. Blinkoff, R. M. Golinkoff, “A new path to education reform: Playful learning promotes 21st-century skills in schools and beyond,” The Brookings Institution: Big Ideas Policy Report, 28 October 2020.
5. K. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Hutchinson, 1959).
6. T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962).
7. A. Gopnik, A. N. Meltzoff, P. K. Kuhl, The Scientist in the Crib (William Morrow, 1999).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122, USA, and the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC 20036, USA.