When you’re a kid, every day is a new discovery. When my son was in the thick of the “why?” stage, I was constantly taken aback by how much knowledge I take for granted. Seeing the world through his eyes reminded me how much there is to learn about the world around you before it becomes commonplace.

Eventually, our kids’ scientific curiosity shifts from trying to figure out how the world works (Where does the sun go at night? Why is snow cold?) to investigating how they can change it. Kids tinker and experiment as much as scientists in labs do. Their experiments just might be more along the lines of “How fast can I make this toy car fly across the living room?” or “Do peanut butter and cheese sandwiches taste delicious or disgusting?”

Many parents are seeking out STEM-focused toys and activities to encourage and develop this natural curiosity in their kids. But they may not have to wait very long to see results. From astronomy to paleontology, kids have been making scientific discoveries for centuries, long before they could drive.

These four kids became scientists, not because they were uncommonly brilliant or because their parents were, but because they paid attention and kept asking questions.

child playing with Circuit Cubes inventing with robotics

Parent Co. partnered with Tenka Labs because they believe every kid is born curious.

 

Mary Anning, Paleontology

Mary Anning was a paleontologist fossil collector who grew up poor in England in the 1840s and lost her father at age 11. When she was 12, she and her brother found the first Icthyosaurus skeleton – a Temnodontosaurus platyodon. They sold the skeleton to a paleontologist, who wrote the first ever scientific paper about the ichthyosaur. Because Mary and her brother were children, and poor, they received no credit in the scientific paper.

Mary continued to collect and sell fossils in order to support her family for the rest of her life. Even though she did not have the same educational opportunities that other scientists had, she threw herself into studying anatomy and eventually became an expert in fossil removal.

When she was 24, she discovered the first Plesiosaurus skeleton. While she never was fully recognized as a scientist by the elite of her day, she did eventually gain fame and recognition. Two species of fish, Acrodus anningiae and Belenostomus anningiae, are named after her.

 

Kathryn Aurora Gray and Nathan Gray, Astronomy

In 2010, Kathryn Gray turned 10 years old and also became the youngest person to ever discover a supernova – a record that had, for a time, been held by her own father. Amateur astronomy was a family hobby for the Grays, and Kathryn had been asking her dad to show her how to search for supernovae.

The Grays used a computer program that compared images of the night sky taken through a telescope by a family friend. The program layers old and new photos of galaxies, and if an image is not present in both pictures, it will appear as if it is blinking.

Within 15 minutes of looking at the pictures, Kathryn noticed a blinking light. That light was a supernova, which has since been verified and named 2010LT. The supernova is roughly 240 million light years away, in the constellation of Camelopardalis in galaxy UGC3378.

The youngest supernova discoverer title, however, now belongs to Kathryn’s brother, Nathan. In 2013, Nathan found a supernova in the constellation of Draco in galaxy PGC 61330. He was 33 days younger than his sister at the time of his discovery.

Matthew Berger, Paleoarchaeology

Finding an old bone would be the highlight of any nine-year-old’s summer vacation, but discovering a new species of hominids is a whole different story.

Matthew Berger was on an archaeological dig with his archaeologist father in South Africa in 2008 when he made his discovery. He found pieces of a partial skeleton of a young male, and his father soon found the skeleton of an older female nearby.

The team of archaeologists later determined that the fossils were a new species of hominids – early precursors to humans – and named them Australopithecus sediba. It turns out that the fossils Matthew discovered were nearly two million years old.

Ethan Manuell, Technology

Experimenting with toys for a school science fair led to a discovery that helps improve the lives of people who wear hearing aids. Fourteen-year-old Ethan Manuell, who has worn a hearing aid since he was four, converted some vibrating toy bugs he found in his toy box to work with zinc hearing aid batteries. He found that the batteries, when left exposed to oxygen for five minutes before installing, lasted 85 percent longer.

The typical hearing aid battery lasts two to seven days, but Ethan’s five-minute discovery means some models can last up to three days longer, saving hearing aid wearers $70 a year.

icon about invention science and discovery

Like Mary, Kathryn, Nathan, Matthew, and Ethan, all children are equipped with innate curiosity and can benefit from the opportunity to make discoveries, regardless of their parents’ professions. Whether an astronomer, a carpenter, a Certified Public Accountant, or a stay-at-home parent, there are countless ways to cultivate your kids’ natural scientist streak.

Encouraging a ton of free play outside is a great place to start. Building forts, digging holes, damming streams, constructing miniature fairy worlds in the undergrowth, or just laying around on the grass long enough to notice the sounds of crickets and birds all add to a child’s stockpile of wonder. These kinds of activities also create opportunities for skill-building and success that are completely free from the constraints of “failure.”

Exposing children to new and challenging situations (why not tackle that big kid Circuit Cubes set or try a new instrument?) both stretches their skills and shows that you believe in their abilities. It’s also important to help them see that there’s no one right way to do things, whether playing a sport, making a potato cannon, or helping out with dinner.

Your kids will become flexible thinkers and be more likely to experiment if they are given the agency to test, tweak, miss the mark, and try again. Together you can explore the many ways to tackle a single question or problem (e.g. are we better off today that we were 100 years ago?) and teach them to look at “facts” from multiple angles.

Allow your kids the freedom to follow their natural whys and how comes, and they will become keen observers of the world, well poised to uncover the next five-eyed insect, or maybe just fall in love with the world that surrounds them – which might be the best thing you can offer them.

Parent Co. partnered with Tenka Labs because they believe every kid is born curious.