playingwithanimalsAs a parent, you want what’s best for your kids, right? That’s why you buckle them into car seats, make them eat their vegetables and read plenty of parenting articles like this one. After all, if there’s something your babies need, by golly you’re going to give it to them!

There’s only one problem: it’s hard to always know what your children truly need.

Think about it. Babies can’t speak to tell you what’s going on with them, young children usually aren’t that great at explaining what they’re thinking yet and teenagers are too overrun by hormone-fueled emotions to even talk to you half the time.

But don’t feel bad — you’re not the only one to stink at reading a child’s mind. Professional psychologists have been struggling with the exact same problem for decades. And fortunately for us, they came up with a solution: experiments. Performing experiments on children has helped researchers learn everything we know today in the field of child development. And it can help you too.

If you’re freaking out right now because the word “experiments” has you imagining clipboards, Bunsen burners and monkeys screaming in cages, relax. Those aren’t the kinds of experiments we’re talking about.

Many of the experiments developed over the years are actually simple activities that parents can do in the comfort of their own homes. You follow a few steps, then see how your adorable test subjects react. To your kids, the experiments will seem like fun games. But for you, they’ll provide tremendous insight into what’s going on inside your little ones’ brains at all different points of development. Rather than just reading about what your children understand and perceive at a particular stage, you can actually witness it for yourself.

Ready for an example?

This simple animal toy experiment is a surprising, hilarious and informative excerpt from an entire book we wrote about experimenting on your child — “Think Like a Baby: 33 Simple Experiments You Can Do at Home to Better Understand Your Child’s Developing Mind.” So put on your white lab coats (not really), and let’s get started!

What You Need

  • your child
  • five or six small toys that are all one type of animal (like dogs)
  • two small toys that are some other type of animal (like cows)

How It Works

  1. Stand up all of the toys together on a flat surface.
  2. Naming whichever animal you have the most of, ask your child, “Are there more dogs or more animals?”
  3. See what your little animal says.

The Results

Most kids who take part in this experiment are extremely confident in the answers they give. But depending on how old they are, many of them are completely wrong!

Children younger than six or seven almost always say the answer is dogs — even though dogs and cows are both animals, so obviously there are more animals than dogs on the table. After we did this experiment on our three-year-old daughter, we asked, “How do you know?” She responded, “Because there are lots of dogs.” (The “Duh, Mom and Dad” part was implied.)

The famous child development researcher who created this experiment, Jean Piaget, knew that it was more than a children’s riddle — it was a test of a child’s ability to simultaneously weigh multiple aspects of a situation to solve a problem. The reason young children answer this question incorrectly is that they immediately recognize the dog toys should be classified as “dogs” but fail to realize they should also be classified as “animals.”

Older children will start answering this question correctly, marking a major milestone in their cognitive development. Once they do, you’ll know they’ve become more creative and critical thinkers, capable of applying their newfound skills to tackle all sorts of problems, both in and out of the classroom.

What This Means for Your Child

If your child passed this experiment with flying colors, he’s ready to tackle more sophisticated logic and reasoning challenges. So feel free to bust out those algebra flashcards you’ve been itching to try, Mom and Dad!

If, on the other hand, your child was fooled by this experiment, you might be tempted to think he doesn’t understand much about numbers. But don’t be.

Even preschool-aged children who have difficulty with problems like this one are capable of understanding basic math concepts. They can count, identify the relative sizes of numbers (like six is bigger than four), and do simple addition and subtraction. And developing number skills like these early on is really important, because studies have shown that the better children are at basic number concepts in kindergarten, the better their math grades will be throughout high school.

So don’t have a cow if the dog-counting experiment was rough for your child. You can still easily help your kiddo develop important number skills through simple, everyday interactions, like:

  • counting the stairs together as you walk up or down
  • doing simple addition and subtraction problems with grapes at snack time
  • playing card and board games that involve numbers

Remember, just a little number experience goes a long way!

If you really want to get inside your kids’ heads, understand what they do and do not know and see how they are progressing in all areas of development, experiments are the only way to go!

How’d the animal experiment work for you? Let us know in the comments!

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