When Kelly Barrales-Saylor was a new mom, she got a lot of children's books as gifts. Most were simple books about shapes, colors and letters. There were none about science — or math.
"My editorial brain lit up and said there must be a need for this," says Barrales-Saylor, who works as an editor for a publishing company outside Chicago.
Halfway across the world, Chris Ferrie was similarly unsatisfied.
When reading to his kids, Ferrie noticed that most books used animals to introduce new words. In today's world, that just didn't make sense to him.
"We're not surrounded by animals anymore," says Ferrie, a physicist and mathematician at a university in Sydney, Australia. "We're surrounded by technology." So he created some math and science books for his own children and self-published them online.
That's where Barrales-Saylor found them. And together, they designed a series of books aimed at toddlers and babies.
The books introduce subjects like rocket science, quantum physics and general relativity — with bright colors, simple shapes and thick board pages perfect for teething toddlers. The books make up the Baby University series — and each one begins with the same sentence and picture — This is a ball — and then expands on the titular concept.
In the case of general relativity: This ball has mass.
But some of the topics Ferrie covers are tough for even grown-ups to comprehend. (I mean, quantum physics? Come on.)
A firm grasp of rocket science isn't really the point, Barrales-Saylor says.
"We know toddlers aren't going to pick up the exact high-level concepts we're explaining," she says. "We're trying to introduce the small seeds of information meant for them to remember years later."
Some parents hope a happy primer to a complex subject will yield results later on. Take Amber Faust, 33, who lives in South Carolina.
Physics never came easily to her — she got a "C" in her college class — but that hasn't stopped her from introducing the science to her kids.
She reads Ferrie's Baby University series with sons Oliver, 2, and Milo, 1. Then, they "act it out."
"We make funny noises and run through the house," Faust says. "The 2-year-old is a crazy active baby, so anything we read we have to act out."
Connecting the books to the real world is the best thing parents can do, says Jeff Winokur, an early education and elementary science instructor at Wheelock College in Boston.
"It's important to give kids physical experiences and a chance to talk about them," says Winokur, who remembers learning to dislike science by reading about it.
According to Winokur, what kids and parents need is to accompany their reading with an experiment. It could be as simple as asking the question: "What happens when I roll this ball down a hill?" he says.
Children would do better to engage with physical objects rather than static pictures on a page — that way, they bring the subjects to life.
And the idea that physics is incomprehensible to small children? Let's just say, the babies may know more than we think.
"Infants come into the world equipped with expectations that accord very closely to what we consider Newtonian physics," says Kristy vanMarle, who has been researching children's "intuitive physics" at the University of Missouri.
Children as young as 2 months comprehend that objects unsupported will fall and objects hidden will not cease to be, according to vanMarle's study.
"Of course, they can't talk about it, or explain it, but the knowledge — in the form of expectations — seems to be in place," vanMarle says.
As the children grow, so does their understanding. They learn the language to describe the phenomena they have experienced all their life
In Washington, D.C., Rosie Nathanson is trying to make Ferrie's physics books work for her two younger children.
At her home on Capitol Hill, Nathanson sits on the couch with Henry, 6, and Sylvie, 2 1/2, and reads Rocket Science for Babies:
"This is a ball. This ball is moving."
Henry has been learning about this concept — flight — in school.
Nathanson continues: "Air can't go through it."
" 'Cause it's aerodynamic," Henry responds. He's excited to hear words he understands.
But while Henry plunges through the books, his little sister grows restless. "I need water," says Sylvie, who's having a hard time grasping this intro to rocket science.
Her mom thinks she might be more interested in the books a year from now. Henry, meanwhile, gives the books a qualified endorsement.
"I like it half and I didn't like it half," says Henry. The half he didn't like? It's "for babies."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
How old were you when you learned the basics of physics or rocket science? Or maybe you never did. Well, if there's a toddler in your house, you can refresh your memory or maybe learn something new. As part of our series on kids' media, NPR's Lynn Neary takes a look at books that introduce some complex concepts to the very young.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Kelly Barrales-Saylor was a new mom, she got lots of kids' books as presents.
KELLY BARRALES-SAYLOR: Basic concept books about shapes and colors and alphabet - and I realized that there wasn't really any science available, nothing about math, nothing about science. And my editorial brain lit up and said, there must be a need for this.
NEARY: Barrales-Saylor is an editor at Sourcebooks. She did some research and found Chris Ferrie, who had self-published some math and science books for kids online. Ferrie is a physicist and mathematician at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. He first created the books for his own children.
CHRIS FERRIE: My children find it easier to pronounce proton and neutron and electron than they do, you know, aardvark.
NEARY: When reading to his children, Ferrie noticed that most books used animals to introduce kids to words. In today's world, that just didn't make sense to him.
FERRIE: You know, we're not surrounded by animals anymore. We're surrounded by technology.
NEARY: Barrales-Saylor worked with Ferrie to design a series of books aimed at toddlers and babies. These are sturdy board books with bright colors and simple shapes that introduce the basics of subjects like rocket science, physics and general relativity.
All right, let me get the books out for you.
HENRY: I want the rocket book.
NEARY: You want the rocket book?
Six-year-old Henry Nathanson and his 2-and-a-half-year-old sister, Sylvie, live in Washington, D.C. Their mom, Rosie Nathanson, agreed to read the books to her kids.
ROSIE NATHANSON: (Reading) This is a ball. This ball is moving. Air can't go through it.
HENRY: I know because it's - because it's aerodynamic.
NEARY: Henry had learned about flight in school and was excited to hear words he knew in a book called "Rocket Science For Babies."
NATHANSON: The upward force is called lift...
NATHANSON: How'd you know that? This is a...
HENRY: ...When I'm learning about flight.
NATHANSON: Exactly. This is the shape of an airplane wing.
HENRY: I knew that.
NEARY: But while Henry plunged through the books, his little sister grew restless.
SYLVIE: I need a water.
NATHANSON: Listen - OK...
NEARY: An ABC book about math momentarily caught her attention.
NATHANSON: F is for focus. Do you know that?
NATHANSON: The focus is the...
NATHANSON: That's good.
NEARY: But not for long.
NATHANSON: Do you want to read more of this?
NEARY: At 2 and a half, Sylvie was clearly having a hard time grasping the concepts in these books. Sourcebooks editor Kelly Barrales-Saylor says the books are really just an introduction to scientific and mathematical words.
BARRALES-SAYLOR: We know toddlers aren't going to pick up the exact high-level concepts we're explaining. We're trying to do - introduce the small seeds of information, meant for them to remember years later.
NEARY: Sylvie's mom, Rosie Nathanson, thinks her daughter might be more interested in the books a year from now. As for 6-year-old Henry, he gave the books a qualified endorsement.
HENRY: I liked it half, and I didn't like it half.
NATHANSON: I have a question for you...
HENRY: ...Half and half.
NATHANSON: OK, half and half. I have a question for you. If I just came up with this book and said, rocket science, and didn't read the, for babies, what do you think?
HENRY: It would probably be better.
NEARY: Henry might shy away from books that he thinks are for babies, but some parents might find these books are at just the right level to start learning about rocket science. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCIENCE IS REAL")
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: (Singing) Science is real, from the Big Bang to DNA. Science is real, from evolution to the Milky Way. I like those stories about... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.