STEM and the Original Core Play Pattern


Explore and discover

From the moment we are born, we are driven to explore our environment and develop and test theories of cause and effect.  As such, Exploration and Discovery is the original play pattern and one that crosses the gender divide.  Both boys and girls engage in this play pattern which is at its peak in the infant and toddler years but which never really goes away.

With all the current emphasis on STEM careers, the toy industry can deliver big time developmental benefits—not by conveying a scientific “body of knowledge” (as in so-called science toys), but rather, by letting children exercise the very mental circuits that allow us to make  scientific discoveries of any type!  It’s not about content—it’s about process:  Exploration and Discovery!

In his book, Archeology of the Mind:  Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, co-author Jaak Panksepp identifies the brain’s “Seeking System” as foundational; this emotional system represents the most evolutionarily ancient brain circuitry and underpins all of our subsequently evolved primary emotional systems (e.g. Fear, Rage, Care, etc.) 

Because this drive to explore is so essential to survival, Nature evolved it first and developed a built-in reward system to encourage this behavior—feelings of pleasure.  The quality of pleasure is one of “anticipation” versus the pleasure of “fulfillment.”  In other words, the pleasurable feelings of anticipation we all experience when we are in exploration mode represent the very reward system Nature designed. 

No wonder all children–from tiny infants and rambunctious toddlers to adventurous kids and teens—are constantly exploring and discovering.  And, to the extent we adults engage in exploration and discovery, we stay young at heart– and maybe some of us even become scientists!

Just as infants and toddlers are driven to explore everything in their world, cognitive scientists also tell us that we are driven to look for causes along the way.  Imagine a toddler interacting with one of our many electronic infant toddler toys. “Look at that flashing light!  What causes it?  Oh, I see…pushing this button makes the light flash.”

Consider what the authors of The Scientist in the Crib-What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind had to say about this “explanatory drive:”

A key aspect of our developmental picture is that babies are actively engaged in looking for patterns in what is going on around them, in testing hypotheses, and in seeking explanations.  They aren’t just amorphous blobs that are stamped by evolution or shaped by their environment or molded by adults…they have an explanatory drive.  This drive pushes them to act in ways that will get them the information they need; it leads them to explore and discover and experiment. The apparently pointless activities we call play often seem to be the result of this drive (emphasis is mine).

The central premise of the book is that babies are a lot like scientists!  Children naturally know how to wonder and investigate.  How can the toy industry build more opportunities for exploration and discovery into our products? How can we leverage the power of surprise?  We don’t necessarily have to teach physics or engineering principles—we just have to stimulate children’s innate curiosity!

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