Let the incredible ideas run and run
How should children be introduced to science, the most effective and exciting of human adventures? Fuelled by curiosity and need (also perhaps by greed), science is a mental organism of facts and explanations and questions. Like a ship's logbook, its past is important for appreciating the present and planning the future. But like any history, its past is written from successes: we know too little of the difficulties and mistakes of science, though they have dramatic interest and outnumber its achievements. Why do children learn only the successes? Wouldn't they appreciate adult learning difficulties?
The universe is the book of science: books are second-hand, while science is first-hand doing and thinking. But of course we can't all find the origin of the Nile, walk on the Moon, or discover the powers of radium. Books are essential for learning and sharing science; though practical classes in schools and universities, and recently in hands-on science centres, can make books come alive. However, they cannot be judged in a vacuum: they depend on observing and trying things out and questioning the familiar.
Science is largely a way of seeing familiar things and activities: riding a bicycle, swinging, playing football, swimming, or making a model aeroplane can all be exploring principles of nature, when what is going on is questioned. Do science books stimulate such questioning? Generally, no.
Yet once questioned, familiar spinning bicycle wheels and soap bubbles become wonderful mental magnets attracting further questions and inspiring ever more interesting answers. For this children and adults need a lot of help, especially from books, which can be consulted whenever mood or opportunity dictates. Unlike parents and teachers, they are always available and never tire; but they cannot respond to questions (or jokes) and they cannot help directly with doing projects.
Given that do-ing has such appeal for children, can't their books convey the wonder of why bicycles stay up-right, bubbles have glorious changing col-ours, spinning balls curve in their flight? Newton saw that a ball, thrown far enough, would go round and round the Earth for ever, to be another Moon - one of the great insights of science. This is not beyond children's appreciation, and is worth thinking about while hanging around in the outfield; but it takes a Newton to think of it in the first place.
Once seen in this way the Moon looks different - far more interesting. Shouldn't these books help children to see the Moon as a giant cricket ball crossing all boundaries; bicycle wheels as points of mass each resisting change of direction; the surface of bubbles as interfering with the wave nature of light?
What are science books for children like? Many are beautifully illustrated and produced. Many are stuffed with facts (though not always quite accurate) and some are well written. To my mind they sadly lack concepts. Can't, for example, a children's book on natural history ask where species came from? Is the concept of survival of the fittest really too hard? Surely not, yet this key to understanding biology and ourselves hardly appears on adult television, let alone in children's books.
It is sometimes said that children lack the necessary attention-span to follow an argument, or to draw conclusions from examples. But isn't it possible that, if true, this is a result of the "bittiness" of children's books? Possibly children find reading hard, in part because books written for them lack logical continuity and cogency.
How should ideas and facts be presented? There seems to be something of a paradox here. Many children love facts, yet they also love fantastic worlds of incredible imagination. Can't these be combined, for science books? Science itself is full of strange facts and incredible ideas. There is the immense appeal of stars and atoms - once the journey to understand starts in a creative way.
Surely there is a lesson to be learned from children's interest in dinosaurs - where facts and imaginative other worlds combine to fascinate and set the mind working. Doesn't this suggest that children's imaginations can be released by books to make facts live with wonder?
Do children read in a science centre, or a museum? Hardly at all. Is this because doing is almost too interesting? No doubt books can provide what is needed to see and understand; but perhaps it simply takes a number of years to discover this - to learn how to read meaning and become excited by words.
Piaget held that there are stages of development in children which cannot be transgressed; yet it is necessary to run a little to appreciate the need to walk better. Very possibly barriers are set up by lack of available concepts and mental stimulation. Are so many children's science books dull because they are not brave enough to run ahead to future journeys?
Richard Gregory FRS is emeritus professor at the University of Bristol Department of Psychology and a judge of the Rhone-Poulenc junior science book prize. The shortlisted books are Atlas of Earthcare by Miles Litvinoff (Gaia Books), The Big Bug Search by Caroline Young (Usborne), Blood, Bones and Body Bits and Ugly Bugs by Nick Arnold (Scholastic), The Incredible Journey to the Centre of the Atom by Nicholas Harris, Joanna Turner and Trevor Day (Kingfisher) and What Happens When . . . by John Farndon (Macdonald). The winner will be announced on June 19