Learning about science starts at Mother’s knee

Mom to 2-year-old: “Don’t touch that! It’s hot.”

And 2-year-old thinks: “What is hot?”

What has Mom just done? She has almost guaranteed that the child will touch whatever it is that is hot. A child does not know what “hot” is until he or she has felt “hot.” It won’t do much good to physically keep the child from touching something hot. Sooner or later, they have to experience “hot” in order to live wisely. Mom thought she was teaching her child, and I suppose she was. She was at least raising curiosity levels in the child that would result in learning.

Adults call the act of touching things we have already been warned about an “experiment.” It is similar to touching the wall that bears a sign that says “Wet Paint.” The term experiment is generally, then, an excuse for dumb behavior. So we can see that the makings of a scientist begin literally at Mother’s knee.

Think further back. A baby knows whether or not it is hungry. Its response to any kind of discomfort is to scream bloody murder. Of course, most adults are far more sophisticated than that. When adults are unhappy they just riot in the streets, break things, or kick the dog. After time and experience, though, a baby learns that the best source of comfort is that one special person. Months later the child learns to call her Mother.

Our first experiences with “hot” may be misleading. Mom says not to touch something that she touches all the time. Apparently, sometimes it’s hot and sometimes it’s not, or moms are made so that it doesn’t hurt them. Life can be so confusing. How does she do that anyway?  Watching Mom work the magic of not getting burned while working on a hot stove is fascinating. The child must instinctively think, “I wonder how she does that?”

Education is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment. Words help us name things and experiences so we can manipulate them in our minds. Yet in our education system, from Mother’s knee on up, we continually tell people, “Don’t touch that” when the students are actually thinking, “What is that?” At other times we tell students, “This is good for you.” The student may not have a clue what “this” is, or how to obtain it.

How did you learn about gravity? It’s hard to think very clearly about gravity until one has fallen out of a tree or off a swing. Experience with magnets is necessary somewhere along the way if one is ever going to understand electricity. Chemical reactions are easily visible, even if atoms and molecules are invisible. Teachers of science are lucky because it is not hard to arrange experiences with the real world.

It must be difficult to imagine abstract concepts without physical experience, though. For example, economic concepts may be difficult to understand if one has never earned an income. How does one learn to manage money without ever having lived within a budget? Well, we could always ask Congress, I suppose. They must know.

You mothers may not realize that you hold the key to America’s economic well-being, and educational superiority, on the world stage.  It’s mothers who stimulate their children to learn from their physical experiences. It’s my mother telling me not to touch things that were hot that started me wondering what hot was.

My mother also told me that, “Can’t never done nothing.” I pondered the meaning of that often as a child. Do the first two negatives cancel each other out so it is actually a single negative saying I can’t do anything. Or did she mean I haven’t done anything? When I complained about going out in the rain, she told me, repeatedly, that I wasn’t “sugar, or salt, or anybody’s honey.”

I mean, statements like that just beg for experimentation. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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