In the last decade, educators and psychologists have begun developing new methods to test and understand the infant mind. They’re finding proof that even the youngest infants are phenomenal learners, actively engaged in absorbing new information, imagining, experimentation, statistical reasoning, problem solving. This perception of babies was once held only by those with insight and the inclination to observe — people like infant specialist Magda Gerber who rejected conventional wisdom and inspired others to study babies playing independently and note their abilities.
“An infant always learns. The less we interfere with the natural process of learning, the more we can observe how much infants learn all the time.”–Magda Gerber
So, how do we best enable and support babies through this impressive, innate process? Here are a few of the secrets Magda taught me…
1. Diaper changes, feedings, baths, brushing teeth, dressing and undressing, nose wiping, finger and toenail clipping are all prime time for learning
But this is only true if we pay attention while we are doing those things, tell our babies what’s happening and invite them to participate with us. Even when our infant or toddler isn’t in a cooperative mood, there is much to be gained by simply acknowledging the difficulties, retaining a flexible attitude and continuing to interact rather than distract. “We’re having a rough time of it today, aren’t we?”
Infants can’t help but learn all the time, so the question really isn’t “are they learning?”, but rather “what are they learning?” If we engage with babies during caregiving tasks, they learn about their bodies and how to care for them. They learn language naturally and internalize it because they don’t just hear our words, they experience them through all of their senses. (“Can you help me squeeze the warm water out of this yellow sponge?”) Most importantly, babies learn that their participation is expected and highly valued.
During these intimate moments with us, our baby’s sense of security is refueled, which then makes it possible for him to enjoy playing and exploring independently.
2. Infant learning secrets? Babies know them all already. So, trust infants and toddlers to be initiators, explorers and self-learners (which is the essence of the first RIE principle).
Indeed, babies can teach us a thing or two about learning, as psychologist and infant researcher Alison Gopnik explains in her intriguing video How To Think Like A Baby. Experts used to believe (and some still do) that an infant peacefully lying awake in his crib couldn’t possibly be ‘doing’ anything, or at least not anything worthwhile. One influential author even believes that babies “should not be put down at all” and that “babies placed in cots live in a state of longing…” These subjective assumptions and projections are not only untrue, they grossly underestimate the infant mind and are, quite honestly, a little egocentric on the part of the adult. Babies are only capable of being followers, never initiators? They have no mind or will of their own? They can’t take an interest in life unless they are in the arms of an adult?
It is true that babies need plenty of attentive physical contact with loving adults, but they also benefit from initiating self-chosen activities, engaging with life on their own terms, which might be as simple as an uninterrupted exploration of their hands or feet, or a daydream about dust particles. They especially enjoy having our appreciative attention without our direction.
3. Short attention span? Think again. Let infants choose, and their interest lasts longer
Another reason to let babies initiate learning activities is that they (like all of us) are capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something that they find enjoyable or intrinsically motivating. Magda Gerber balked at the idea that infants and toddlers have short attention spans, because she’d observed otherwise. Magda understood that only the baby really knows what interests him at any given moment, and when we allow babies to choose activities and don’t interrupt, they astound us by engaging much longer than generally thought possible. (See this video and the one below!)
4. Big play spaces can be too much of a good thing. Even the smallest babies need boundaries
Parents have asked, “My whole house is childproofed. Do I need to make a gated play space for my baby?” And my answer is yes, because babies aren’t as comfortable playing when they are in a very large area. They are distracted and overwhelmed by too much “freedom”, actually appreciate the security they feel within safe boundaries (although toddlers might test and seem to object to them). The younger the baby, the smaller the space needed to feel truly free to explore their world and learn. Very young infants have plenty of room to play in a crib or playpen.
5. Familiarity breeds learning
An interesting paradox about babies…they learn more from what they know than from what they don’t know. Learning blossoms when babies have a predictable environment. They love to know the ropes.
I get a kick out of observing babies entering the RIE classroom each week with their parents. The first few times they come, they quietly take in this novel situation. Then you begin to see the spark of recognition in their eyes and maybe a smile. As the months pass, some of the children arrive and point out their favorite familiar things in the classroom, as if touching base. I’ll respond, “Yes, there’s that dog in the picture you always see here.” You can clearly see when they have gotten over the hump and begin to own the place, because they dive right in and begin exploring. If they’ve missed a week or two for whatever reason, it might take them a couple of classes to feel that sense of comfort again.
Parents who have returned from family trips often tell me how elated their toddlers are to be home, enjoying their safe play spaces again.
6. Babies learn more when their toys are doing less
Interestingly, they engage with passive, simple, open-ended toys and objects for much longer, too. And that reminds me…
A family in one of my classes allowed me to share a video of their son, and it happens to perfectly illustrate the infant learning secrets I’ve mentioned: trust in the infant as a self-learner, the comfort of boundaries and familiarity, sustained attention as a result of self-chosen activity, and the value of simple objects as creative learning tools.
Watch this 10 month old scientist focusing intently for over 8 minutes (but there’s no need to watch the whole thing to get the picture). Observe his attention to every detail as he explores his object’s properties and creates educational experiments that help him to better understand balance, mobility, gravity, velocity. Even more impressive to me than this baby actively learning is the atmosphere of trust his parents have provided. The belief they obviously have in their son and his abilities is what makes this depth of learning possible.
(I love the way he checks out his hand in the beginning.)
Now, here’s a sampling of the “qualities of a good learner” that I found from a variety of sources on the web. Do any of these remind you of babies?
For more about Magda Gerber’s pioneering approach to infant care, please check out her books Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect, and my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (which is now available in Spanish!)
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