Google+ Authentic Parenting: Non-coercion Through Math and Science Adventures - With Toddlers

Friday, May 27, 2011

Non-coercion Through Math and Science Adventures - With Toddlers

Written by Dr. Maria Droujkova

Would you drive with your toddler not wearing seat belts? I found myself doing just that, and moreover, using brakes suddenly to make my two and a half year old "fly." We were engaged in a scientific experiment. Katherine claimed, like too many adults still do, that she does not need belts now that she's "big and strong": she could just hold onto the seat. I claimed that the forces involved are stronger. Her claim was wrong, but rational and based on some evidence: she did have a growth spurt recently, and started Kung Fu, and said she never noticed what belts did for her in the car anyway.

I drove in our very quiet cul-de-sac, very slowly. My first attempts to brake suddenly, at something like .5 and 1 mph, seemed to support Katherine's theory. We chatted about forces I mentioned earlier, with delicious long words like "sudden deceleration" now making sense to her. I moved to higher speeds. At around 2 mph, she could barely hold on when I applied the brakes, but still her claim stood. At around 4 mph, still a crawl as cars go, her hands gave and she bumped into the seat in front of her - not hurting herself, of course, but very obviously, unpleasantly losing control of her body. Katherine concluded her theory worked at lower speeds, but not at high speeds we use in real driving. We went home to watch some movies about dummy crash tests. We looked at pictures of cars after accidents, showing broken windows where people without seat belts flew out. Over the next weeks, I pointed out more situations where acceleration was creating forces, and soon Katherine started to point them out herself.

My husband and I value rationalism and love games. That's why we resolved many disagreements with our daughter through little "science adventures" rather than coercion. Yes, it took us about an hour, all told, to work out what happens with seat belts. But that time wasn't wasted on empty arguing. I did not override Katherine rational arguments with my authority, but helped her to gain more knowledge of the situation and the world in general - which kept her safer in many other situations since. And it was fun!

Past adventures and promises of new ones made Katherine more interested in our "science lectures" - explanations of what to do, and most importantly, why. It was hard to figure out explanations or experiments to show some ideas. For example, I asked Katherine not to roll a vase around, since it could break. Reasonably, she replied that she had already rolled the vase around for a while and it had not broken so far. I was unpleasantly reminded of the clueless, "My uncle smoked all his life and he is fine" argument. How do you show chance and probability to a toddler?

We ended up repeatedly rolling a cheap glass down the stairs. It banged amusingly and landed without a scratch for a while, but broke to pieces at the attempt number five. Katherine wanted to experiment with other breakable objects, so we used another glass and a light bulb, since we were already making a mess. Ever since, when a situation with random elements came up, we could recall our simple "glass experiment" as a powerful demonstration of probability.

There are many more educational resources on the internet now than there were ten years ago when Katherine was a toddler. You can find good people from MythBusters to MIT physicists sharing their work on YouTube or their sites. Even if a good experiment of your own does not come to mind, you can always invite the kid to watch some movies of what others did on the subject, and then repeat some of their adventures. As a kid, it’s more fun to do research than to fuss, and as a parent, it feels infinitely better to help kids learn rather than to coerce them.

About the author:
I like to stage math adventures and invite others to share the journey. I built two networks for the purpose: Natural Math for kids and parents, and Math Future for researchers and developers. I live in Research Triangle, North Carolina with my husband Dmitri and our daughter Katherine.



  1. This is sooo fantastic! I am studying early childhood education and this is the sort of thing I want to bring when I am in a classroom, not lecturing, but being co-learners, and going on explorations together. When children ask questions they are so much more likely to really understand the answer if they lead the discovery (with your help) than if they are simply told. LOVE LOVE LOVE what you're doing :)

  2. Love this. I started reading thinking you were crazy to drive without seatbelts, but in the cul-de-sac at low speeds was a great idea, and taught what telling couldn't.

    I especially appreciate your insight that it's more interesting for kids to experiment than fuss about not being allowed to do something.

    I hope to have the patience and trust to let my toddler (a 10-month-old now) experiment and learn things on her own. these lessons will go much further than rules and will give her a much better sense of the world and reasoning.

  3. Oh how I loved to read that. I used to do that a little bit. I need to start again, and do it more often that I used to. Thank you for the very nice read ! (and how lucky is Katherine to have you as a mother !)

  4. This is a great reminder to myself that sometimes (ok, too often) my too cautious approach gets in the way of real learning. Theory is great, but learning a concept through hands-on experimenting is bound to stick better.

  5. Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you are having fun with the idea, like our family does :-)

    BabyMumma, you can do the same approach with "subject learning" - in fact, it's quite similar to what I do with groups of kids when we work on math.

    Megan, it's more fun for kids and also for parents. So it feels rewarding overall, and once this reward registers, our brain makes us want to do more investigations :-) It's actually easier to do a quiet investigation than to have a power struggle when you are tired, and kids fall asleep faster, too... But it does not seem easier at the time, and we need to be aware of that.

    Murielle, it's actually a big question of HOW OFTEN do we need to conduct investigations. Obviously, there are too many laws, natural and human-made, to re-discover every single one of them from scratch. So, we just can't do that for every one. Maybe I should write another post about it sometime.

    Yelena, if something looks too dangerous to try yourself, there are always MythBusters and other "don't try this at home" science movies on YouTube. Older kids can actually be sent to "just Google it" too. But, again, we need some balance.


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