In a conversation with a colleague about teaching evolution in schools, an interesting point came up. He brought up that teaching kids that “evolution is just a theory” and that other ideas have equal merit will confuse them and make them think that other ideas about the origins of the world have been explored scientifically when they have not. My argument is that, while kids may not understand the political ramifications of a particular teaching, they will understand the difference between “Here’s this guy who came up with a theory and tested it in this way,” versus “This is what the Bible tells us.”
Children are, in general, a lot more perceptive than a lot of people give them credit for. They tend to have a natural inquisitiveness and lack the predefined notions and biases that hold a lot of adults back. If you are able to frame an idea in terms of something they already understand, it’s pretty easy to get them to grasp what you’re saying, especially if they haven’t already been taught that a certain topic is difficult or intimidating. They may be bored, but they rarely are just too dumb to get it.
When I was doing a summer internship in the DC area several years ago, as a college student, my flatmates and I went down to the National Air and Space Museum for a day trip. One of the exhibits, about the universe, had a lot to do with optical and atomic phenomena. Each of us found something that pertained to our particular summer research topic and had a blast playing with the demos. When kids were waiting to use the demo, we’d then engage with them, teaching them more about the demo than the display intended, because we had a good tool to introduce the topic.
This later became important when I was a grad student and volunteered to give demonstrations for my institute at Maryland Day, years later. Not only did I volunteer to give demos, but I also helped brainstorm for demos that would be both interesting and informative. We needed something accessible enough that a non-scientist could understand it, but relevant enough that we could connect it to the cutting-edge research that scientists at the institute do everyday. I chose an emission-lamp demo, where we gave people a diffraction grating and let them look at the light from fluorescing gases. We could show them that the diffraction grating bent different colors of light different amounts, so that when they looked at the light emitted by the excited gas, they would see a disjointed rainbow of sorts. This showed that elements emit at only certain energies, instead of across the whole spectrum, and it helped visitors understand how spectroscopy and laser interaction with atoms works.
The trick is to wait until you see the confused look on a child’s face to simplify further. Plenty of kids are able to understand more than you might think, especially if they’re into the sort of thing you’re explaining. My first published short was a piece on how a 10-year-old taught me about quantum physics while I was his counselor in drama class. Scientific knowledge and insight comes in different packages, and it’s important not to pre-judge your audience too harshly.