Two new studies show children learn advanced material much earlier than previously believed. Both studies also indicate that if educators do not teach the more challenging content, students are at a disadvantage.

Researchers from several universities conclude that it may be very important to children’s future cognitive and academic development to teach them math, reading and science at earlier ages than is the current norm. In fact, status quo educational curricula may be partially responsible for widespread scientific illiteracy, according to researchers.

Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago and F. Curran of Vanderbilt University found that kindergarteners given challenging math and reading lessons show persistent, improved academic performance later in school. Kingergarteners showed gains later in school “regardless of whether they attended preschool, began kindergarten with more advanced skills, or are from families with low income,” stated an abstract of the study published in the most recent issue of American Education Research Journal.

When teachers don’t expose the kindergarteners to advanced content, the students struggle with math and reading later in elementary school relative to their peers who are exposed in kindergarten, according to a report on the study in Education Week.

In related research, Boston University's Deborah Kelemen found children are capable of learning complex scientific materials at much earlier ages than previously believed, and waiting to teach the material until adolescence may limit the children’s growth and even cause life-long effects. Her findings were published in the current issue of Psychological Science.

Kelemen told National Public Radio, “Imagine what a curriculum spread over several years might do for scientific literacy long term. It’s an exciting thought.”

In the study, researchers explored children’s capacity to learn basic explanations for natural selection by using a picture storybook to teach the material. Students understood the logic and even generalized the information, meaning that they both learned the material and capably applied it in other educational settings.

The policy implications may be very important, according to NPR. If science is not taught at a rigorous level at an early age, NPR reported, “we may miss an opportunity to leverage children's natural curiosity about the biological world and to establish the foundations for a more accurate scientific understanding before misconceptions become deeply entrenched.”

By failing to teach children when they’re ready, and postponing until they’ve generalized scientific misconceptions, students may have difficulties understanding not just natural selection but other science as well, Kelemen and other experts told NPR.