Nine month old Lucy initiated the “Great Migration” in parent/infant class last week by becoming the first infant to hit the deck (crawl to it, that is), through the open doors of the playroom. “That’s it…say goodbye to your daughter. She’s off!” one of the dads joked.
Lucy had almost ventured out the week before but decided to stop at the doorway and investigate tape wrapped around the bottom corner of the door instead. She remained there entranced until class ended.
According to the findings from recent brain studies, infants and toddlers can’t help but notice every detail in their environment. They view the world with what psychologist Alison Gopnik refers to as a “lantern-type” attention rather than a focused beam of light. Easily distracted and insatiably curious, a piece of tape beckons as powerfully as a deck flooded with L.A. sunshine.
Lucy’s dad shared his observations about his daughter’s evolution from shifting, pivoting, and inching across the floor to her new ability to sit, climb up and over a 3 inch platform, and set off speedily in a direction of her choosing. At home he had noticed Lucy repeating movements back and forth, “as if loosening a hinge”, testing out new positions and then resuming her more familiar patterns.
These self-initiated tests — repetitions, explorations, experiments — are the way children learn. Learning to move comes naturally, but each infant must still “reinvent the wheel” for him or herself. Most importantly, as infant expert Magda Gerber taught us, while babies are developing and practicing their motor skills, they are also learning how to learn.
Babies discover that learning is about making mistakes and risking failures to make progress. It’s exciting, rewarding and frustrating. It takes enormous effort and persistence. It means being flexible, open to trying another way. Sometimes it means straining to reach an object an inch away, finally getting traction, only to find you’re scooting backwards instead. Typically, it’s taking two steps forward and then kerplunk! But as parents we must realize: this process of struggle comes naturally to infants.
Magda Gerber advocated ample opportunities for uninterrupted infant play each day. How unusual this advice was, and still is. “Parents know they should hold their babies, but they don’t know to give their babies this time, time to move and explore.”
If we give babies these daily opportunities to ‘learn how to learn’, we instill in them a positive attitude toward obstacles, challenges, and problem solving. These babies, able to maximize their talents with innate learning skills, grow to be independent and capable students who find every aspect of school easier, more enriching, less stressful. I know this from experience – with my own kids and others.
In fact, the comments I’ve just read in my middle daughter’s first high school progress report could just as easily have described her playing as an infant — could be descriptive of Lucy and the many other infants I’ve observed, too: “Participates actively”; “tremendous work ethic”; “has very impressive focus and concentration”; “spirited enthusiasm and a high level of self-motivation”; “diligent work habits”; “attentive when her peers are offering their input or asking questions”; “engaged and involved in everything that happens each day – working to build a solid understanding of the material.” And one I really admire and appreciate from my daughter’s graphic design teacher: “quickly caught on to software tools and has wrangled them to eloquently express her ideas.”
A child’s positive, productive attitude towards learning begins as an infant — on the floor or ground.
“As we observe infants, it almost looks as if they are working rather than playing: they are fully involved, absorbed in what they are doing. We don’t need to invent exercises for them. They learn to follow their instincts and to trust their own judgment.”
-Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect