Young kids think and learn about their surroundings much the way that scientists think and learn in advanced experiments, a new study says. They form hypotheses, test them, analyze their findings and learn from their actions and the actions of others — all in child’s play.

A growing body of evidence about this style of learning shows yet again that early childhood education is crucial — but it also shows making preschool more academic could actually be detrimental, according to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kids learn using probabilistic models, approaching the world through patterns and using those patterns to make predictions. This can lead to drastic reformulations of a worldview — just like scientific experiments can, according to Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at Cal and lead author of the new study. For instance, she had kids play with an electronic setup that lights up and plays music, if certain pieces are arranged in a certain way. The kids will try different combinations and arrangements, learning what works and what doesn’t, and change their approaches based on that evidence.