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.
About the author:
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.