The scientific process vs. a preschooler’s imagination

I was babysitting my 4-year-old niece the other weekend, and she posed a deep philosophical question.

“Uncle Danny,” she asked, seriously, “do toys come to life at night?”

That immediately created different philosophical questions within my own mind—What’s the right age to take away that magic? And do I want to be the one to pull the trigger?

Normally for this type of inquiry, my response would be, “Let’s see what Mommy thinks.” But my sister was working, so the buck could not be passed. The kid was looking to me to fill her in on the secret lives of toys, because naturally Uncle Danny is an expert in such matters.

I initially tried to hedge a bit: “That sort of thing might just happen in our imaginations.”

“But I think they do come to life,” she insisted.

With only a moment to settle on a response I decided, you know what, this query about the alleged animus of toys might be an opportunity to begin introducing a young mind to the scientific process.

I told her we could figure this out by performing an experiment. We’d set a toy in a particular spot that night and remember that spot. Then in the morning, she would look to see if the toy had moved.

If it remained in the same spot, then that would serve as evidence to suggest it did not come to life and did not spend the night frolicking through the home under its own will. If the toy ended up in a different spot by the morning, then maybe it did have itself a little nocturnal adventure.

Only through careful observation of our environment can we learn what actually happens.

So of course I told her she needed to sleep the entire night in her own bed for the experiment to be valid.

She selected a Mickey Mouse doll and sat him against the base of her dresser. “I think Mickey will move,” she hypothesized.

I was starting to feel a little guilty, because obviously in the morning she’d find Mickey in that same exact spot, and the world would become less magical.

But I needn’t have worried. The next day, she excitedly called to tell me that Mickey had moved.

She called me on a plastic toy phone. (My mother relayed the message.)

That’s probably fine for a 4-year-old. She’ll figure out the truth about the same time she begins to apply critical thinking to the concept of the Easter Bunny.

The scientific process apparently can’t compete with the imagination of a preschooler.