Is a child a ‘natural scientist’? Or simply naturally inquisitive?

A while back on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme I heard something that’s stuck with me. Apparently, David Attenborough was once being interviewed by a journalist who posed the question, ‘When did you become interested in the natural world?’ Attenborough simply replied, ‘When did you stop?’

This anecdote made me think of a few articles I have read over the last few months about children being ‘natural scientists.’ One such article was a blog post by Jonah Lehrer, who covered a study that examined the way in which young children, aged four and five, solved a simple problem involving beads and a box which played music when certain beads were placed on it. Here’s a section of Lehrer’s post:

“The lesson of the research is that even little kids react to ambiguity in a systematic and specific fashion. Their mode of playing is really a form of learning, a way of figuring out how the world works…

Much as science goes beyond simple experiments, so too does exploratory play,” the researchers write. “Exploratory play is a complex phenomenon, presumably subserving a range of functions other than the generating informative evidence…However, to the extent that children acquire causal knowledge through exploration, the current results begin to bridge the gap between scientific inquiry and child’s play.”

I personally believe that this last statement may be a bit too far. The first section quoted echoes much of what Robin Dunbar and others have talked about before, that we all have a natural ability to investigate the world around us. However, to say that the outcomes of studies such as this one “bridge the gap between scientific inquiry and child’s play” overlooks much of what it takes to be a scientist and implies that many people have simply lost a natural ability to ‘do’ science as they get older.

Maybe it would be more helpful to think in terms of the fact everyone has a natural inquisitive side that can help a child grow into scientist? Then we could have children and adults of all ages reconnect with this inner child to help them connect with science?


4 thoughts on “Is a child a ‘natural scientist’? Or simply naturally inquisitive?

  1. I think equating science and play and saying that they are the same thing is probably going too far, but I believe they are closely related. A problem is that for many people the process of learning all the stuff you need to become a professional scientist (creating new knowledge) can kill off the playful curiosity that prompted the initial interest. I’m lucky enough to be leading a project where we’ll get to test this by creating an exhibition around behaviours and skills that we want to stimulate rather than factual content we want to impart. We’ll find out in the summer how it works, but if you’re interested our development blog is at

    1. HI Andy – thanks so much for your comment – I agree with you that there is a relationship between play and science, but that having a thought process thats comparable to the scientific process doesn’t automatically make someone a scientist. Your project looks fascinating, I’m going to delve into the development blog but it would be good to hear more about it at some point

      1. Hi Lizzie, if you send me your email I can tell you more about the project (e.g. DM me @arlloyd). At its heart, the project is an attempt to use the medium of interactivity for what it is good at!

  2. Excellent article Lizzie, I wonder if the thought process is comparable to a subset of the scientific process. I know i like to teach parts of scientific discovery as if they were a game.

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