Published 20 July 2023 by Arunima Roy

Why Learning Is Child’s Play

Developing brains are designed to learn from the environment. Photo/Credit: Userba011d64_201/iStockphoto.

One of the perhaps most premium schools in the world wants you to know that for the paltry sum of thirty-six thousand Euros, they’ll give an eighteen-month-old the ‘best possible start to their educational journey’ and ‘maximise their learning’. As anyone who has ever spoken to a toddler can attest, if you can get one to follow instructions, let alone learn, then you are not human. You are clearly a brightly wrapped candy.

Designed to Learn

Babies don’t want an educational journey and they definitely don’t need our help learning. Developing brains are designed to learn from the environment and research shows just how adept kids are at extracting knowledge from the world around them.

Children gain knowledge by listening to adults, be it via storytelling or conversations. Receiving adults’ testimony – or statements of thoughts and beliefs – helps conceptualise the world and understand cultural practices. When humans converse, information is conveyed not just through words, but also gestures and intonation. The ability to identify and extract information from such cues is well developed in children, including infants. Children also weigh the credibility of the speaker when receiving knowledge. In an interesting experiment, children were provided conflicting information on objects’ names. The experimental subjects were more likely to believe familiar adults, even when they were incorrect, over strangers. Furthermore, in a group, children can identify who is knowledgeable and will believe the expert over others. And if conflicting opinions arise in a group with no obvious expert, they can identify which side the majority is on. Even preschoolers can identify consensus, which is a remarkable feat given their limited arithmetic skills.

Children also learn by observing adults. Experiments where an adult manipulates a toy to produce an outcome – such as a flashing light or sound – show that children as young as four understand that the adult’s action caused the toy to glow up or jingle. They can effectively replicate such actions to reproduce the outcome. In some situations, children may be better than adults at understanding how an object works based on demonstrations. And in experiments where actions have probabilistic effects on the outcome, preschoolers identify the probabilities of success and will imitate actions most likely to produce the desired outcome. This is more than can be said for my statistical reasoning abilities.

Intrinsic Curiosity and Exploration

Five children and one teacher sitting around a table with toys
Children learn by conversation and interaction with other children and adults. Photo/credit: Hispanolistic/iStockphoto

Observation and imitation are bolstered by exploration, which provides opportunities to encounter novel situations for learning. Children are naturally curious and are driven to explore their environments, especially when events conflict with their beliefs. Even babies are tuned to seek out new experiences. Babies spend a longer time looking at unnatural events – such as a ball passing through a solid wall or a toy reappearing in a different location – and have concomitant changes in brain blood flow, neural activity, and pupillary dilation, suggesting that infants actively engage in inferring these events. Curiosity and exploration boost activities of hippocampal (memory forming) and prefrontal (higher order executive functioning) brain regions which may explain their effects on learning.

Curiosity and exploration are intrinsically rewarding for children. To enable exploration, a child’s brain casts attention widely to capture salient objects or events. We adults in contrast are hapless at distributing attention in this manner. Adults excel at selectively focusing on one task and damping out distractions. Such selective, focussed attention, develops much later in life, but unfortunately, is the type of attention needed for learning in a classroom setting.

Time for New Schools?

When it comes to schooling, we believe children should encounter a variety of subjects as early as possible. So, we bombard them with learning ‘opportunities’: piano, swimming, advanced math, survival in the wild, pitch your startup to a VC fund… you get the drift. Unsurprisingly, this has the effect of turning children into dismal grumps rather than the discerning intellectuals we hope for. Children’s brains are simply not designed to absorb information within such contrived and restrictive environments.

In the front: A girl explaining something to another pupil in school, both looking at a tablet, in the background: another group of pupils.
The best way of teaching in schools is being discussed. Photo/credit: lisegagne/iStockphoto

‘Children are like sponges’ has been overused to the point that its impact is as dull as the dishwater the sponge must soak. Children only soak up knowledge when left to their own devices. Play, which is spontaneous and never goal-directed, is critical to learning. For example, rough-and-tumble play helps develop social skills. Exploratory play, in which children examine objects with their senses, enables a deep understanding of the physics of the world. And pretending or make-believe helps children develop counterfactual thinking skills which enables them to perceive other’s thoughts and emotions.

The zeal to provide structured learning environments has impacted play too, turning it into yet another tedious task. School websites often have pictures of children in lab coats, ostensibly playing ‘scientist’, gaping in amazement (almost always) at a massive combustion. The tricky part is that play does not have an endpoint or an outcome to achieve. So, it is hard to actively impart academic knowledge in the guise of play. These young role players are neither enjoying themselves nor learning effectively.

Children develop in their own unique way, but schooling is about fabricating a particular kind of child. The natural ways in which children learn, by observing, imitating, listening, and playing, help them develop exceptional skills for surviving and navigating the world. However, academic outcomes matter if one must succeed, which by today’s metrics means a good job, high wages, and the like. Time and again though, school has been shown to make children stressed, anxious, and depressed. Is schooling, the way it is set up now, worth it then? Can we even affect children’s learning with our machinations?

Maybe it is time for a new school of thought.

The content of the article reflects solely the opinion of the author.

Arunima Roy

#LINO18 Alumna Arunima Roy works in public health as an analyst. She previously studied the effects of environment on mental health disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When not at work, she will be either playing computer games or trying her hand at writing fiction. She is passionate about science communication and hopes one day to parent two dogs whom she will name ‘Crispr’ and ‘Cas’.