Think Like a Child (Ep. 168)

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(Photo: VA State Parks Staff)

(Photo: VA State Parks Staff)

Our latest podcast is called “Think Like a Child.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Why would anyone want to think like a child? Aren’t kids just sloppy, inchoate versions of us, who can’t even say “I Don’t Know”?

Hardly. As Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt describe in their new book, Think Like a Freak, thinking like a child can be very fruitful.

 LEVITT: I think the beauty of thinking like a child … is that sometimes doing things differently and simply and with a kind of joy and triviality leads you to a really special place that as an adult you don’t get to go to very often.

Kids are relatively unbiased; they don’t carry around many of the pre-conceptions that adults do. And, as we all know, kids don’t “pay attention” the same way that adults do. This makes them more likely to notice or care about things that the rest of us don’t — and, if you happen to be a magician, it makes them a hard audience to fool. In the podcast, you’ll hear from journalist and magician Alex Stone, author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. We brought Stone down to WNYC to perform for a room full of middle-schoolers from I.S. 318 in Brooklyn (thanks, guys!). You’ll hear the results and you’ll hear Stone dissect what happened:

 STONE: [Adults] watch it and they’re waiting for the punch line, and then they sort of see it, and then they maybe go back and think about it. With kids, you get this sense that with every step of the way they’re trying to understand it. From the second they see it, they’re always coming up with theories.

You’ll also hear from Alison Gopnik, who has done fascinating research on children’s cognitive processes and development. Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Gopnik describes how modern research shows that kids are much more than just underdeveloped adults, and that they have a variety of traits we’d do well to smuggle across the border into adulthood:

GOPNIK: Think of the kids as being the research and development division of the human species. And we’re—adults—we’re production and marketing. So from the production and marketing perspective, it might look like the R&D guys are really not doing anything that looks very sensible or useful. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas. And we poor production and marketing people, who are actually making the profits, have to subsidize these guys! But of course, one of the things that we know is that that kind of blue-sky, just pure, research actually pays off in the long run.

kevin ellis

Always look at everything in the picture not what is being splashed in front of your face.... there is alot in the background, but you won't know untill you start to look at all of it...

Bridget Crogan

I was interested by the podcast as an educator. I believe that adults often underestimate the abilities that students are capable of. For example in the podcast, the speaker mentioned that we need to be able to acknowledge the obvious. Many times we over-think or make something more complex than it actually is. We need to think small and acknowledge the obvious.


I really like the idea that students pay attention differently. Instead of seeing this as a challenge, I believe we should value this different perspective. I love when my students can see something in a picture or book that I can't. It unlocks a childhood type of imagination many adults loose.


Really enjoyed the piece, especially on the part of teachers lecturing because that's what has worked in the past. We need to decide what "works" means; does it mean passing a test or remembering the content . I would suggest the earlier, as we as educator might not know what the child retains later on.


I agree with the concept presented here. Children/Students are more free in their thinking. I think that comes from several angles, first students are not restricted by peer pressure. It reminds of the old adage "Kids say the darndest things," kids don't have the social cues that adults have and sometimes this is a good thing but at other times this prevents adults from thinking outside the box.


I agree that thinking like a child can be fruitful in many ways. Because children are unbiased it makes it easier for them to come up with ideas and answers. Children have this fearlessness about them that makes them more available to take risks without fear of what others are thinking, which can be very fruitful.


The ability to think like a child is an amazing thing. As adults we use prior life experiences to base our judgements and decisions. Children are able to open their minds and think freely. Thank you for sharing these insights!

Colleen Jones

Interesting with easily understandable examples. The explanation of why children would be more likely to figure out magic tricks was interesting. I also think they are able to give this "fun" activitiy their whole attention while adults might be thinking about other things and not find task at hand as important. We do need to keep in mind that children do not always think as we do, but are still capable of solving problems. For example, when children are told to "break" a work, they come up with a variety of ways to solve the word and not always as the teacher was thinking.


Thinking like a child will most definitely help us to be understanding our students. To be able to see learning through their eyes and break down their thinking. It would be nice because we are so stuck in the pacing of instruction. Let's have a magic show in my class!

Jeff in Ohio

I lost half a thumb forty years ago. Adults never notice. Children often do. That's true even when I am not using my hands for some task that might draw attention. I believe that adults see my hand as a known object and don't really LOOK at it, but children don't assume they know my hand, and they look at it.
I suppose this is similar to experienced speed readers who only look at parts of words and fill in the rest without really looking at each part of each word. They take in information quicker, but they don't really see all that in in front of them.
I often think that this childish habit of really looking might be the way some artists see the world.


I agree with the authors. Children are constantly curious and able to disregard limits that many adults consider. My fourth grade classroom is like a think-tank. They ask the best questions and formulate ideas. They simplify problems because they don't worry about the financial or human limits or risks. It is beautiful and refreshing.

Lori Prondak

I love the way Ms. Gopnik makes the comparison to children being the research and development division of the company it made me think of the way not only my students but my own children look at the world. It brought home how important it is for them to be able to explore and figure out things on their own so they can come form their own ideas and come up with creative and unique solutions and ideas.


For your next podcast, would you please break down the statistics behind the claims that the New England Patriots gained an edge with deflated footballs over the last few years. I'd love to get your guys' take on the whole thing.

Story about Patriots as an outlier on fumbles per carry:

Story saying the stats are junk:

Celia Contreras

Enjoyed think like a child. I need to think small and state the facts. Thank you for sharing.


I agree that kids think outside the box a lot of times. They usually do when it's something they are interested in; however they struggle with thing that are abstract or concepts in math. The program we ate using in math have them doing several activities that have them working out problems in groups. They have the hardest thing understanding and solving problems that have more than one steps. This us why I usually teach a varity of different ways to solve them. This way they choose the way they want to solve the problems.

Diana Vrabel

I was amazed with the podcast as it explained how children think and learn. Unlike adults, they can concentrate on several things at a time. The have constant curiosity and are able to divide their attention so they are learning from everything happening around them. They ask 'dumb' questions because they are trying to sort out the problem in increments instead of looking at the whole problem and getting frustrated because the problem wasn't worked through from the beginning.

I enjoyed the discussion about how the gentlemen would hire someone who loved what they were doing as their "job" instead of someone who was much better at doing the job. People who love their jobs will work weekends, work harder and keep paper and pen on the night table to jot down ideas in the middle of the night.


How can I be open to more possibilities? I am limited by what I can imagine. How can I build my imagination? I want to notice what's on the balcony. Maybe noticing what's on the balcony doesn't have an immediate award for my life, but I can have a self assurance that I am more aware. I am the oldest of eight kids, and I have been able to see these children grow up and change. I love getting to play with my six-year-old sister, she has some of the craziest and funniest ideas and is able to problem solve in such interesting ways. I agree that thinking like a child can help me connect better with my middle school students and also help me help them generate their ideas and use their sense of play to help them find what they love and get them motivated to do what they love. I also feel motivated to pursue what I love.


Just got done listening to the podcast - as a this was my first one from Freakonomics - I have to say that I enjoyed it! I thought it was very engaging and justifies my thinking in terms of how I get the highest level of engagement in my 1st grade classroom. I have always found that when I sit back and try to think like my students, my lessons often tend to go in a different direction than where I had intended them to go, but that usually is a good thing, in fact, truth be told - not only are my students more engaged and comprehending the lesson, but I am enjoying the learning taking place because it is meaningful and relevant to me and my students!


I've noticed in my teaching that it's often hard for adults to understand how a child's mind works. Kids are extremely creative and smart but adults often overlook that because they see someone who doesn't have the life experience that they have and therefore doesn't completely understand as well as the adult does. I think that if adults just took the time to hang out with kids and talk with them, it would allow the adults to adjust and transform their thinking to that of a child.