Child’s play – the science of asking questions

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

I often say that children are born scientists. From the moment they are born they are actively finding ways of figuring out how the world works, and how they can get it to work for them.1

Some people say children are sponges. But I say they are more than that. They are creators. They don’t just copy what they see. They don’t just repeat what they hear. They find new ways of working things out, new ways of expressing ideas, and new ways of thinking about things. Parents often remark, when children exhibit new behaviours or cute new phrases or ways of expressing themselves, “Where did they get that from? Where did they learn that?” Often the source cannot be identified, for the source is within the child.

An important way to keep children creating their own understandings and ideas is to not only allow them to ask questions, but to actively encourage them to do so, and to help them seek answers to their questions. Adults can be quick to quiet children’s questions for a number of reasons including not knowing the answer, being too busy at the time to investigate an answer, or even considering the question unimportant or “dumb”.

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

Remember, many things that adults may take for granted or that they may no longer question but simply accept (possibly as a result of not receiving appropriate answers or responses to their childhood questions) are new and unfamiliar to the child.

Sometimes it is easier to accept than to question for questioning means that something is unknown; and not knowing can lead to feelings of insecurity, doubt and instability. But it is these self-same feelings which drive innovation and progress. If everything was known, there would be no room for improvement, no need for anything new, no need for greater understanding.

This inspiring TED talk by Beau Lotto and Amy O’Toole, Science is for everyone, kids included emphasizes the need for children to be given the opportunity of asking, and exploring answers to, questions.

Beau explains that what we see is based upon our experience, upon our expectations. But he asks,

“if perception is grounded in our history, . . . (and) we’re only ever responding according to what we’ve done before . . . how can we ever see differently?”

He goes on to explain that seeing things differently begins with a question and that questions lead to uncertainty. He says that


and explains that the answer to uncertainty is play. He says that play “is a way of being” and is important for five reasons:

  • Uncertainty is celebrated in play and makes play fun
  • Play is adaptable to change
  • Play is open to possibility
  • Play is cooperative
  • Play is intrinsically motivated

“Play is its own reward.”

Beau says that science, also, is a way of being; and that science experiments are like play.

He describes working with a group of 8-10 year old children, encouraging them to ask questions and involving them in an investigation of a question they posed.

Amy O’Toole, one of the children involved, joins Beau and describes the experiment which investigated the ability of bees to “adapt themselves to new situations using previously learned rules and conditions.”

The really exciting thing about the project, Amy says, was that they “had no idea whether it would work. It was completely new, and no one had done it before, including adults.”

The process of taking the findings of the project to publication, as Beau explains, was rather complex with a variety of complications, taking two years to achieve. The experiment itself took only four months! Publication of the paper made Amy and her friends the youngest ever published scientists.

The response to the paper, The Blackawton Bees is amazing:

30 000 downloads on the first day

Editor’s Choice in Science (a top science magazine)

the only paper forever freely accessible on Biology Letters and

the second-most downloaded paper from Biology Letters in 2011

Amy wraps up the talk by stating that

“This project was really exciting for me, because it brought the process of discovery to life, and it showed me that anyone, and I mean anyone, has the potential to discover something new, and that a small question can lead into a big discovery.”

She finishes by saying that

“science isn’t just a boring subject … anyone can discover something new.”

We might not all make those big scientific discoveries, but it is the questions we ask each day which lead to our own discoveries, no matter how small; it is our curiosity which keeps us learning.

What have you learnt today?


1 This is just my opinion formed from observations, discussions and reading. I am not supporting it with research references.

16 thoughts on “Child’s play – the science of asking questions

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  4. Sarah Brentyn

    Great post, Norah. I have something written about my two boys and their desire to learn, discover, and ask questions. One of them is loaded with curiosity and I LOVE that. The other never questions anything and I hate that. I’m always trying to gently prod him to ask more or inviting him to come back with questions. On the flip side, it’s funny to see how other people absolutely LOVE my son who never questions anything (because he’s not bothering them or annoying them) and how they find my curious son annoying and trying. Maybe the constant digging for answers is annoying to some, but I am raising these boys and I want them to be curious about the world around them and not be afraid to raise their hands (or voice). 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Norah Post author

      This difference between your two boys, and the responses of others to them, is interesting. Your comment ties in very well with recent discussions we have had regarding the nature/nurture debate. You are nurturing both boys to be curious about the world and to be not afraid to raise their hands or voice but their individual nature still determines a lot of their attitudes and behaviour.
      Thanks for commenting. 🙂


  5. Narinda Sandry

    Reading this Norah wants me to go back and raise my kids again…I think new parents should be given this as part of their hospital package in the form of an affirmation poster that they could display somewhere just to remind them of the possibilities when they get caught up in the demands of nappies and sleepless nights. Even as an experienced teacher, posts like this remind us of what we all should aspire too… Thanks Norah


    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Narinda,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s lovely to have you join in the discussion.As you say, when parents get caught up in the demands of nappies and sleepless nights, it can be difficult to think beyond those issues, especially how to meet one’s need for sleep, and to have some time to think beyond simply meeting the baby’s physical needs. I’m pleased you found the article interesting and I will consider your suggestion of an affirmation poster. Thank you for it. 🙂


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  7. Charli Mills

    Great post, Norah! I love that idea that children are both scientists and creators. When in that frame of mind (play) we observe life as exciting, interesting and seek connections (answers). Answers often lead to more questions, thus prolonging play. But somewhere along the way we forget to play; we forget to ask; we stop learning and think we “know all we need to know.” Writers are like children, I think. We still want to play, to ask questions and continually observe and connect to the world around us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment Charlie. I love the way you bring my ideas back to writing, just like I bring yours back to children. It’s a wonderful ability – to be able to make connections with what we know, what’s important to us, and with each other. Unless a reader can connect with a writer, and writer with a reader, the words are but empty marks on the page. And you are right – play is such an important part of writing: playing with ideas and possibilities, playing with words, sounds and language, playing out other lives and opportunities in our minds, and others’.


      1. Charli Mills

        I agree, Norah! What we bring to reading is enhanced. Sometimes writers fear it, wanting only their “take” on the words, but I welcome community it creates, the ideas I never considered and that sense of connection.


        1. Norah Post author

          That’s right, Charli. Sometimes we want readers to understand our message completely, just the way we intend it; but that can never be because nobody else has exactly the same experiences, thoughts and feelings as we have – we may share some, but they are always from our own perspective. I think it is only by sharing perspectives that we can grow in understanding of, and as a result, compassion for others. I think empathy might be a word that touches that a little. Thanks for sharing.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Annecdotist

    So agree, children learn through their curiosity, experimenting and play. So do scientists. Both are under threat to a degree from standardised educational attainment goals for young children and funding for science be linked to potential utility of the results – sound sensible but would stifle so much useful research, you don’t know what it will yield and you’ve tried it.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Bec

    Great article, thanks Nor. I really enjoyed the TED talk you discussed, too. I agree, children are scientists – though so often the scientific institutions are (perhaps unintentionally) closed to children. This is a shame, and I recall when I did the education program at the environmental education centre that the students felt very excited to be involved in something real. It seems so often the scientific exploration, perhaps through schooling and life, of children is kept within the parameters of safe, and pre-known science. This is great – learning what the species has accumulated over years, though perhaps it also suggests that children don’t have anything to offer – one has to be an adult before being a valid contributor to knowledge. Very thought provoking, thanks Nor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec, Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, thoughtful as usual. I’m pleased you enjoyed the talk by Beau and Amy. Thanks for sharing your experiences in the environmental education program. I think it is just as, or even more, important for children to be engaged in real explorations, where they feel they are contributing and making a difference, rather than just completing an exercise to get a tick at the end, which will then dumped somewhere never to be seen again.

      Liked by 1 person


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