Should a two-year-old know something about physics?

Personally I like the idea, but only with a skilled author. With themed kids’ books like this there is a huge range in quality, so let’s look at two books, one excellent and the other disastrously bad. The two books have obvious differences in quality, but I would say the most important difference is that one author knows their audience, and the other doesn’t.

The Good Book

First is Baby Loves Quarks!, by Ruth Spiro and Irene Chan. Here are sample pages:

This book is well made and illustrated with lively pictures. But look especially at how its language engages children. The sentences are concrete, and their concepts are things kids can get, Y is made out of X. New terms, like quark, proton, and neutron, are placed in simple sentences. Kids are used to learning words they’ve never heard of as a part of their daily life. So the language of the book matches its intended audience.

The Bad Book

Moving on, here are sample pages from Newtonian Physics for Babies, by Chris Ferrie:

Just a glance shows that the illustrations are absurdly lazy. Colored circles are the only images on most pages, without even shading to make them look like actual balls rather than just circles. I suspect he finished all these illustrations in a couple of hours’ work. And if you’re willing to get really geeky about it, the shadows under the balls are placed too low, so they actually make the balls look like they’re floating just above the ground rather than sitting on the ground. This last point drove me nuts.

But there’s a more fundamental problem with the book, which is that its concepts don’t match the minds of little children. For example, the idea of “the force of the ground” pushing up on a ball is very difficult to get your head around, and not remotely appropriate (or useful) for a small child. Nor does a small child have any use for a mathematical rule, that the force of the ground always equals the force of gravity.

The author claims to write for babies, but the actual appropriate audience for the Newtonian Physics book is high school or college intro physics students, who want a visual study guide to help them keep a few concepts straight for their first test. It is no surprise that Chris Ferrie turns out to be a college professor––of computer science, not pedagogy.

The Upshot

So what is the key here? Science books for babies are fine, but they should not try to teach science. That’s overstating it a bit, but my point is that a book like this should be a primer, to make kids familiar with a few science words so they’ll be ready to learn about them when they get older. Only the most basic concepts of how the terms relate are appropriate at this age level.

The Newtonian Physics book tries to do more, and the result is something that Chris Ferrie might illustrate with four gray rectangles, a squiggly line or two, and a drop shadow suggests they’re sitting just above the ground. That is, a train wreck.

But the Quarks book does this well, using just the very basic concept, X is made up of Y. My kids have enjoyed it for years now, and it makes me happy to read as a parent. Ruth Spiro did a great job, and also has a similar book we like, called Baby Loves Coding. The coding book maybe gets a little over the head of young kids, but it’s still solid, beautifully illustrated, and mostly age-appropriate. I’d recommend her stuff.

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