Child are natural born scientists. Yes, we may have heard that, but what does it mean? As do scientists, children learn through experimentation, through developing and testing theories, through interactions with their natural environment, through careful observation, and through imitation. This exploration is called play.
From the earliest age of infancy, children learn about their world by exploring, manipulating, and testing it, reassessing what they’ve found, adjusting their hypothesis, and testing again. Ever notice how strong of a manipulator your three-year-old seems to be? That’s because they’re testing your response. They are willing to try anything—crying, screaming, guilt-tripping, begging, whining, batting their eyelashes and flashing their adorable smiles—to get you to do what they want. They are asking you to say yes or no, to add to their book of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, what you are going to allow, and what you aren’t.
Do you remember when your infant would toss their carrots on the floor while sitting in their high chair, and look up at you expectantly? Do you remember when, moments after you returned the carrots to them, they would do it again, with that same curious but innocent look in their eyes? Your child wasn’t just throwing food on the floor because it was fun, (although, arguably, it is quite fun), they were testing your reaction. They wanted to know if every time they dropped their food, you would be there to pick it up.
Children spread their arms out wide, looking for the boundaries and the laws of the social and scientific world. They try various behaviors, seeing what response they’ll get, and if the response repeats and is the same every time. After enough testing, they know what to expect in a certain situation (although, that doesn’t mean the testing won’t return). They are constructing their knowledge and image of the world based on these interactions and the responses they get. The answers they are looking for aren’t just expectations for behavior, but also how relationships and materials function.
The same patterns show up in their play. Through play children test out theories about physics: How many blocks can I balance before this topples over? How do I increase that number? Will a stronger base make this sturdier?
They test out theories about social interactions: If I yell, “There’s a monster! Quick! Get in the house!” Will my friend follow me under the table and start playing this game with me? If my friend takes a toy and I scream at them, will they give it back? What if I offer them a different toy instead?
And, perhaps the biggest theme in play, they test out theories about social roles, dynamics, and themes they see showing up in the adult world, through what we call socio-dramatic play, which is just a fancy way of saying pretend play. In socio-dramatic play, children take on various roles, create situations and worlds, and act them out. This play often mimics typical “adult” activities such as traveling, putting out a fire, going to the doctor, or taking care of babies. Children use their play to work through their ideas about these adult themes. Through observing this kind of play — play that is usually inspired by things they have seen you, or other adults in their lives, do or talk about — you can discover your children’s deepest thoughts and biggest ideas about the world around them. They are still testing theories during this play, as they as testing out how other children will respond or how their emotions change when they take on different roles or go through different situations.
Your child is constantly testing the world and constructing their knowledge through the results. Your child is testing their toys. Your child is testing their friends. Your child is testing you. Children don’t need direct instruction to learn; their whole life is learning. They are constantly developing theories, testing them, adjusting them based on their findings, and testing them again. In this way, they learn how the world works, they learn about cultural and social expectations, they learn about social interactions, they learn how materials function, they learn to create and build, and in this socially demanding human world, they, essentially, learn how to survive.