Turn Your Child into a Science Whiz

Why kids are smarter than you think

By Julie Rattey | Photo by Dan Watkins

Deborah Kelemen was astonished: in her 2014 study, many five-year-olds and most seven-year-olds grasped the concept of natural selection, a topic usually reserved for teenagers. Thanks to an educational picture book Kelemen helped create about fictional mammals, her study participants (ages five to eight) absorbed the complex biological theory—and even began to apply it to other examples. What other feats of learning, wondered Kelemen, might kids be capable of? With more than $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the professor of psychological & brain sciences and the director of CAS’ Child Cognition Lab is finding out. She shared with arts&sciences what her work reveals about children’s understanding of science—and how parents and teachers can better help them.

How does your research change the established thinking of how children learn scientific concepts?

What it tells us is that children are capable of grasping far more complexity than we generally give them credit for. There’s a tendency to give children facts without explanations, but what the storybook does is very gradually and sequentially build up a comprehensive explanation for why a population of animals has the kind of body part they do. Children are able to apply this explanation to new instances; that’s one of the marks of deep learning.

How can parents apply what you’ve learned?

They can offer explanations without assuming they will automatically fly over a child’s head. When children ask you a “why” question, give an answer that goes a little bit beyond a statement of fact and tells them something about the mechanism behind it. And if you don’t know the mechanism, look it up together.

How much detail should you give a child?

They’ve probably got about the attention span of 40 seconds, unless you’ve got a picture book in front of you. So keep it short, keep it sweet, be guided by their interest. And if they don’t ask you a follow-up question, ask them one. People often think this isn’t worth doing with three-year-olds, four-year-olds, but kids these ages are already asking very big questions.

What are some other tips for parents?

Be conscious of your biases. Parents are much more likely to offer a scientific explanation to a little boy than to a little girl. Avoid storybooks with bells and whistles. Children love them, but research indicates that they learn less from those things because there are so many distractions. Encourage your children to explain things or to apply an explanation they have heard. Children learn a lot by trying to figure out things aloud. Model-observing and question-asking. Take walks and wonder aloud about the animals, objects, and events you observe and how they relate to each other. Experiment. Playing with kitchen implements and a bubble mixture, for example, can offer hours of fun. But don’t just observe the physical effects; go deeper to try and explain the mechanism together.

How could your research impact elementary school curricula?

There are big questions to be answered about how we are timing certain concepts in early elementary school and tying them together. With the next-generation science standards that are coming in, I think there are opportunities to build some fairly rich curricula. I hope we combine hands-on activities with things like storybooks and rich explanations that adults provide, as opposed to requiring children to always find out for themselves.

What’s the next stage of your research?

We’ve got several storybooks now, and we’ve taken the work out of the lab and into early elementary school classrooms. Results are very promising. The next stage is to publish these storybooks and get them into the hands of teachers and parents to benefit all children.

Enroll your children (ages birth to 12) in this and other research by BU’s child development labs at bu.edu/cdl/join-us.