National Geographic : 2013 Jan
unmatched period of protected “play” in which to learn exploration’s rewards. “I wrote a book called The Scientist in the Crib that looks at this,” says Gopnik. “It could just as well have been titled The Explorer in the Playroom.” Many animals play, says Gopnik. Yet while other animals play mainly by practicing ba- sic skills such as fighting and hunting, human children play by creating hypothetical scenarios with artificial rules that test hypotheses. Can I build a tower of blocks as tall as I am? What’ll happen if we make the bike ramp go even higher? How will this schoolhouse game change if I’m the teacher and my big brother is the student? Such play effectively makes children explorers of land- scapes filled with competing possibilities. We do less of this as we get older, says Gopnik, and become less willing to explore novel alterna- tives and more conditioned to stick with famil- iar ones. “It’s the difference,” she says, “between going to your usual, reliable restaurant versus a new place that might be great or awful.” During childhood we build the brain wiring and cog- nitive machinery to explore; if we stay alert as adults, this early practice allows us to spot situ- ations in which it pays to shift strategies. Might there be a Northwest Passage? Could we get to the Pole easier on dogsleds? Maybe, just maybe, we could land a rover on Mars by lowering it from a hovercraft on a cable. “We carry this forward,” says Gopnik. And the people who keep this spirit of playful engage- ment with the possibilities of the moment closest at hand—the Cooks and Tupaias, the Sally Rides and Michael Barratts—are the explorers. In the 1830s in the deep forests of Quebec, Canada, a restless population of pioneers began a lengthy, risky experiment. Quebec City, built by the French by the St. Lawrence River, was growing fast. To the north, along the Saguenay River, stretched a vast, nearly untouched for- est. This rich but brutal country soon attracted loggers and young farming families with a taste for work, risk, and opportunity. Up the valley they went, building one small village after an- other, creating a wave of settlement moving up Dozens of studies have found that the gene makes people more lIkelY to take rIsks and generally embrace movement, change, and adventure.