Self-Motivated Babies – Learning How To Learn

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



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. All parents watch their babies and think: “What must he be thinking right now?”

    I went through the brain studies you linked to and was happy to be find out that: “According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants’ inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process”.

    We really can trust the babies to learn their way.

  2. Alexandra says:

    Hi Janet-
    Kudos for your daughter’s achievements. I often think about the long-term impact of this way of being with children, and your sharing gives a small glimpse of the experience of learning that is potentially paved for all of these lucky children!
    Thanks so much for posting on the important issue about learning in the context of motor exploration. I have two questions about this department:
    1. Lately I have been bringing Eliana to the playground and she has been enthusiastically and energetically climbing up the play structures. I am very aware that it is important to let her discover her own way and “never put her into a position she cannot get into or out of herself.” In RIE class she is very adept at climbing the stairs both up and down. Recently at the park she often finds her way to the stairs and crawls up to the top of a play structure. While there she is very busy- experimenting with balance, exploring the environment, noticing older children. But when it is time to get down, I am very concerned. Yes, she was able to get up them safely, but those stairs seem so big and the distance seems unsafe to me – I am so worried about her falling from a height that would be beyond a learning experience. Should I just stay close by and coach her down? Let her know my plan, and then lift her up and carry her down those steps? Should I be waiting to take her to the park until she can walk??!!
    Looking forward to hearing your ideas.
    2. My husband is wondering: initially Eliana seemed to reach milestones very quickly and now she seems to have plateaued. She started to turn over, crawl, find her hands etc. quickly. She seems to have been playing with balance and cruising for about two months, and we thought she might start walking by now. I assured him that she is recalibrating (according to Carol Pinto) and that there is no rush. I am very interested in your thoughts on this matter, also.

    1. Hi Alexandra,

      Thanks! Yes, in my experience with 3 children the long term impact of a RIE-inspired upbringing is remarkably positive, which is the reason I’m writing about it! Recently, a friend suggested that I write more about what my children are doing now to demonstrate how well it “works”… so I included a bit of that in this post. There is so much more I could say, and the only reason I don’t is that I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging! One day I’ll write a “proud parent” post, let loose and GUSH about my children and their accomplishments. I admire them more than you can believe, and I’m well aware that Magda Gerber’s influence helped me pave the way for them to blossom fully.

      1) If a child is able to climb up safely, she can usually climb down safely, too. I would just stay close and “spot” her. If she struggles, try talking her through it first. I usually remind the children, “I won’t let you fall”. Be patient, but if she can’t seem to figure out what to do, coach her, “Just move your foot down to feel the step…” The idea is to allow her to complete the task on her own as much as possible. If you help her down, she believes she cannot do it on her own and will reach a hand out every time. I’ve seen this many, many times in class. A child can do something on her own, but doesn’t believe it because she is used to being helped. This can be dangerous, too, when the parent is not looking for a moment and the child, used to relying on someone, reaches out to lean on them. Just be there to catch her if she loses her balance, but give her plenty of opportunities to find it first.

      2) Interesting you ask about this because I heard T. Berry Brazelton speak at the NAEYC Conference last week and he talked about the develpmental process not looking like an upward slant on the chart, but like steps…a slant upward and then a plateau, again and again. That is normal development! Carol Pinto is right (as usual!) You can trust Eliana’s process. Anyway, who knows what other fascinating things she might be working on — things you can’t see.;-)

    2. I have an almost 12 month old and think the same things. Obviously we don’t want to leave a staircase open for them to play on, but it makes me think about when I watch my son play on my bed. He crawls dangerously close to the edge, and I coach him, “don’t get too close or you’ll fall off.” At first, he seemed to not care, and I would keep an arm or hand available to catch him if he started to fall. However, even though it racks my nerves, now when he plays on the bed he knows just how close he can get workout falling. He’ll crawl right up the the edge, then tien around and sit.

  3. THis is so true! I’ve always tried hard to work in some independent time for my babies. mostly because I’ve observed my 2 nephews. They were raised in orphanages in China until they were 3 1/2 and 4 1/2. When my sister adopted them they had no idea how to even play with toys. She has worked with them a lot and they have shown improvement but it’s a lot of work to undo something that is already set. They still need a lot of prompting and aren’t always self motivated learners. It’s sometimes hard for me to not be hovering over my kids but I do want to help them learn how to explore their world and engage in it.

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