From the very beginning of his education, the child should experience the joy of discovery.—Alfred North Whitehead

Children are naturally curious and continually engage in exploration and play. They are intrigued by cause-and-effect phenomena and delight in being surprised. Cause and effect simply refers to the relationship between an action and its outcome. For example, if a child pushes a certain button on a toy, she may hear a “moo” sound; or if a child drops a ball off a high chair, it may bounce. Piaget (1952) theorized that children learn through play when they can cause things to happen or change. Through their exploration and play, children are intrigued by the incongruous events that they experience (Rogers & Sawyers, 1992). Play enhances learning and development for children of all ages and cultures. The Association for Childhood Education International, in their position statement about play, states that “play is a powerful, natural behavior contributing to children’s learning and development and that no program of adult instruction can substitute for children’s own observations, activities and direct knowledge” (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).

Early in development, before most children are 2 years of age, their curiosity expands beyond basic needs. They begin to understand that they can have interesting experiences with basic toys. They are learning about cause and effect, or means and ends, when they can cause a ball to roll simply by placing it somewhere on a slanted surface. They find that they can shake a rattle and hear sounds. Pushing a yellow button on a toy causes a song to be heard. Pushing a blue button causes the sound of a bird chirping or a dog barking. Toys can activate the senses, and children learn that they can “test” toys to see what sensations and observations they can create. Through their exploration, experimentation, and play, children learn that they can cause things to change or happen. This is the beginning of their understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. Observation becomes the tool for understanding relationships, making predictions, and figuring out why things happen. They learn to cause situations so that related events can be observed and enjoyed. Similarly, young children will pull at a mobile to cause it to chime or play music. They will push a roly-poly penguin off their high chair to see and hear it fall. They squeeze their teddy bears to create sounds. As they repeat these actions, young children begin to remember and learn how to make interesting things happen and last (Piaget, 1952). They also may initiate interactions with others to get attention and receive stimulation or look away to discourage interactions. These experiences are examples of how a young child builds memory of the impressions and experiences in life.

Cause-and-effect relationships are social too. If a caregiver always sings a particular song as she feeds the baby, the baby begins to anticipate the song and the feeding. Likewise, if a baby shakes a blanket and the cat comes running, the baby begins to associate this cause-and-effect relationship and repeats the actions, because the young child remembers the patterns.

Social contexts are also filled with numerous cause and effect occurrences. As children interact with others, they quickly learn how to make someone smile by opening their mouth or clapping their hands. As children engage in feeding, oftentimes certain patterns of care are comforting and predictable. It is important for us to be aware of how we interact with and respond to little ones. These experiences and interactions will set the stage for symbolic learning and language.

As discussed, many toys for young children are designed to nurture their development for understanding these interesting cause-and-effect relationships. Playing with these toys gives them a feeling of control and allows them to predict and anticipate events. They can control making sounds and causing lights to flash. Soon they learn that they can control other aspects of their environment on their own. They can drop the cracker from their highchair or open and close a cabinet door. They learn that they are able to manipulate their world. They pull a blanket to bring a toy closer to them or they push aside a barrier to get a toy (Gordon & Williams Browne, 2004). Making giggly sounds sometimes brings the attention of others nearby. Similarly, crying is a way to get the attention of a parent or caregiver. Infants who experience such predictable events and routines by a responsive caregiver at this stage will be better able to understand logical patterns later (Poole, 1998). Mathematical and scientific thinking is closely related to a child’s ability to search and discover patterns.

As we become accustomed to watching children develop, our observations of these senses tend to become secondary. As parents educators, and caregivers, we become much more interested in the direct communication we have with the children in our care. We tend to not notice specific stimuli that cause children’s responses. We must remember, however, that each child’s environment is critical in nurturing mathematical and scientific reasoning and thinking processes. It remains, as it shall for their lifetime, that everything they learn and do is a product of using their five senses. Our task is to help these children develop and utilize these senses and observation skills in a nurturing environment that leads to sound mathematical and scientific thinking.