From placenta to play centre

From placenta to play centre

Is child development an art or a science?

Nate Grigg

My twin brother recently celebrated the birth of his first baby.

He first shared the news of the impending arrival when his wife was around 10 weeks pregnant. As you can imagine, it was a tremendously happy time for him, albeit mixed with a dollop of apprehension.

After the hooting and hollering subsided, my mind turned to what in the world I could give this tyke, who I’ll come to know for the rest of my life. Baby clothes weren’t an option. No sooner had the news of their pregnancy leaked out, than they were inundated with hand-me-downs from generous friends eager to clear out the dark recesses of their own children’s wardrobes.

I thought about buying a stuffed toy, a photo album, and even a gift basket full of soft cheeses, cold meats and pâté for his wife (how do women do without these for nine months?). Then, in the middle of one night during the 11th week of the pregnancy, an idea came to me. I could write a poem about some of the things that I’ve learnt throughout my own childhood.

Of course, that was the 1% inspiration; next came the 99% perspiration.

Despite being the son of multilingual parents, and having a deep fondness for the arts myself, it is fair to say that my own artistic streak is more of a smudge. To give you an idea of the dearth of my talents in this area, I direct you to the compulsory Year 8 try outs for my school choir in 1994. Of 68 pubescent boys who lined up and sang for the choir master, only three failing to make the cut: My brother, me and another boy.

This column is about the science of child development. But during the mind-numbing hours I spent composing the poem, it struck me how even the most amateurish piece of art can represent some of the wonders of child development.

This brings me to the point of this post: Is child development an art or a science?

First, the case for art.

Picasso famously quipped that “every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up”. It is hard to argue with this observation. Children paint, sing, dance, dress-up, imagine, and create better than any adult. They are at once Andrew Lloyd Webber, Donatella Versace, Rudyard Kipling and Jackson Pollock. Without skipping a breath, children can compose a new song, choreograph a dance routine and perform it with gusto…and that’s just before your 6am alarm clock has gone off. Artistry is central to a child’s inner world and how she interacts with the outer world.

However, the case for science in child development is also strong, with increasing evidence that children are intensely clever scientists. This point was empirically proven in a crafty study by Claire Cook and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

Preschoolers (4 and 5 year olds) were presented with a musical toy and four different looking beads. Half of the children were shown a toy that played music when all four beads were placed on top of it (‘unambiguous’ condition). The other half of the children were shown a different toy, which played music when a specific two of the four beads were placed on it (‘ambiguous’ condition).

Then came the experimental phase, in which each child was given a period of ‘free play’ with a new musical toy and two pairs of new beads. The experimenter first showed the child that one pair was stuck together while the other pair could be pulled apart. The child was then asked to try and activate the toy.

The researchers found that children in the ‘ambiguous’ group were far more likely to snap the beads apart to determine which specific beads activated the new toy. These children were able to systematically apply their previous observations to understand how the world works. Science! And you thought they were just playing. (Jonah Lehrer provides a good analysis of this study.)

To a large extent, I am setting up a false dichotomy here. Art depends on science as much as science depends on art. This is certainly true in the realm of child development.

Can you imagine a child finger-painting (art) without experimenting as to what new colours can be made by mixing paints (science)? Similarly, can you imagine a child acquiring language (science) without using these learnt symbols to express the vast creativity that inhabits their mind (art)?

I don’t see science and art as uncomfortable bedfellows, but rather a symbiotic partnership, where excellence in one promotes excellence in the other. Our Einsteins cannot exist without our Shelleys, and to have shades of them both within the same developing brain is a worthy goal to which we can aspire.

To that end, I think we could all learn something from children.

I welcome your thoughts on this debate in the comments section. If you would like to be on the mailing list for this column, please email autism@childhealthresearch.org.au

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