The Secrets Of Infant Learning

I have a dream: someday (hopefully sooner than later), babies will be acknowledged as whole people and receive all the respect they deserve. I am encouraged to report there’s been some progress in this direction…

In the last decades, psychologists and neuroscientists 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?

    • passion for knowledge.
    • remains focused on the subject matter at hand, and takes time to review the material until it is assimilated appropriately, or we might say until it is well ingrained.
    • perseveres and does not become frustrated or discouraged when items are not easily understood at first.
    • will realize that in many instances, learning is not always a spontaneous event, but something that is realized over a period of time.
    • understands the importance of practice, practice, practice.
    • actively participates.
    • always tries.
    • analyzes new information and contrasts it with what they already know.
    • begins with being present–physically, mentally. Knows how he/she learns best and is creative.
    • enjoys learning.
    • has a personal interest in the subject matter.
    • has active listening, thinks and responds.
    • has frustrations and asks a lot of questions.
    • is a good listener, loves what he/she is learning.
    • is creative — able to challenge assumed knowledge.
    • is enthusiastic about learning. You don’t have to be smart.
    • is open to taking risks, exploring, playing. It’s more about the process than the product.
    • is open-minded.
    • is willing to work hard.
    • never stops learning.
    • very curious, aware and focused on his/her mission.
    • tries to cultivate “beginner’s mind”. (Ha!)

Lovely baby boy playing with toys at home. Cute funny child having fun with playing. Kid development concept.

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!)


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

  1. That video is amazing!! I kept thinking about how different it would have been if his parents had been like so many others are, however well meaning. They would have taken it away (because it’s not a “real” toy), or showed him what it could do, or tried to interest him in one of the other toys nearby because *they* got bored of watching his repetition. But they did none of those things, and look what he had a chance to do! I am so touched by this. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Sarah, those were my thoughts exactly when I watched the video. 🙂

  2. I was captivated by the video! The baby’s focus, interest and time spent with the diaper was so deliberate & inquisitive. The ending had a touch of humor with the toy ring on one foot, sucking on another toy with a smile while looking at the camera and the diaper still in reach 🙂

    Your post was a wonderful read. As an educator for 4s & 5s mostly, I wish for the same things that you wish for babies: that young children would be viewed as People, as competent and curious and capable to make meaning amid their world.

    1. Jeanne, I’m so glad that wonderful people like you are out there working with preschoolers. Yes, this boy (Sammy, don’t think his parents would mind me saying that) is a very funny guy with a zest for life.
      4’s and 5’s are totally competent people and so are newborns… If we can all view newborns as whole people we’ll be set!

  3. Hey Janet, You recently complimented me for my “prolific” writing, but when I come here and read things like this, I’m humbled. Having discovered your blog has kind of “exploded” my mind. You seem to be telling me something I already know, but at the same time it seems to new to me somehow, like you’re showing me depths or angles, or maybe it’s a straight-forward simplicity I’d never knew existed. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the RIE piece, which through you I’ve started to explore. Even in this short time since we’ve connected, you’ve changed how I am in my classroom. Thank you.

    1. Tom, that is the most encouraging and lovely comment I’ve heard in quite a while. Thank you! I think you definitely do know all of this, but maybe haven’t thought about it applying to babies. Everything you write about regarding preschoolers seems like a direct extension of what I’ve learned about infants and toddlers. I’m really grateful for our connection.

  4. The video makes me grin because this is the stage my baby is at.

    I think most people don’t realize that they teach their children to have short attention spans. Both with their busy lives and their own short attention spans. We get tired of receiving and giving a toy to our baby after just a few minutes and direct them to something else…. because of course we have something much more important to do 😛

    Even my preschooler (aah! that’s the first time I’ve called him that! How did he get so old! ehem, excuse me) will play for long periods of time with one thing (or set of things). And sometimes when you think he is not sticking with something very long, all you have to do is watch him for a while and you’ll see that he has a very complex thing going on with this group of toys here and this one here. He sometimes gets upset with our two year old because she starts playing with something that (to my eyes) he isn’t playing with. Then I realize that he is playing with several things (in turn) at once. And then we limit their creativity (and mulit-tasking skills!) by saying, “only one thing at a time, you already have that toy, someone else can use this toy”

    One thing I have found a bit difficult in this area is keeping a good balance of happiness in play between the older and the younger. My oldest was always happy to play for hours on his own, but with the distraction of the older ones, the littlest one just wants to be where the action is and so it is sometimes difficult to keep the baby happy in an enclosed area because he loves to be where his brother and sister are.

    Excuse me, I didn’t mean to write my own blog post!

    Thanks for this!

  5. Janet, wonderful piece! Thank you. I specifically loved how you wrote up your number 2 item. I have always felt that way about parenting and children, but have never seen it thoughtfully put into words until today.

    Thank you! I look forward to learning more from you about RIE!!


  6. How I love to read your posts, dear Janet! I think such a synthesis and depth is available for those who have earned the calm insight of life and love. I share your dream. For babies, for kids, for adults and grandmas and grandpas. We all deserve to understand, experience and enjoy the truth about ourselves: we are “whole” people!
    Thanks to babies, many of us might find the track back to our own essence. That´s why most probably the “beginners mind” is one of the secrets of good learners.

  7. Hi Janet, so beautiful! No secrets anymore about infants learning, I am thankful knowing you and all same minded people. Learning so much from you, your observations, your courage of showing and sharing. Let’s stay passionate together, your dream is already there happening faster then you know!
    I am with you :))

  8. Dana Grimes says:

    Thank you for publishing that AMAZING video! I am the mother of 3 grown children, grandmother of 6 adorables(with #7 on the way)and am still learning the basics! The RIE approach is such a natural, easy way to deal with life. The perception that all humans learn in their own way, in their own time should not be a novel idea. But, in order for human beings to employ the skills necessary to allow ourselves and others the time and space needed for exploration, we must slow down and re-prioritize. Difficult to do, but the rewards are instantaneous! Thank you for this great support for all of us struggling humans!

    1. Hi Dana! You are so welcome, but you don’t sound like you’re struggling at all. You’ve figured it out! And you’re right, it shouldn’t be a novel idea to live and let live. You’re also right about slowing down and prioritizing being the key, and that’s a struggle for all of us. Let’s make a pact to keep reminding each other…

      I want some *adorables* of my own someday!

  9. I agree totally with Teacher Tom (funny that, I usually do!!). You have a way of making things so clear that I see them anew, even if I’ve already discovered some of them myself.

    I’ll be working in the babies’ room for the next month; I’m looking forward to putting the RIE approach into practice in the longer term and seeing if I can ‘be the change I want to see’ in other carers. Wish me luck! 😀

    1. Aunt Annie, you are just the person to “be the change” and I wish you so much luck! And thanks for such kind words!

  10. April Stalker says:

    why wouldnt a baby want to check out a diaper… they live in them (unless having a bath)

    it was a cute video!

    keep it simple – they like the box better than the toy that came in the box 🙂

  11. Wonderful, rich post, Janet! I would like to especially highlight the amazing fine motor development happening in the second video. Adults caring for babies and toddlers, and beyond, need to realize how vital free uninterrupted play is for later learning. “…developmental and neuroscience literature indicates that the connection between early motor skills and later cognitive development (the ability to think, reason, and remember) may be more inextricably linked [than previously known]. Some researchers have suggested that during motor development we learn how to learn.” Grissmer, D., Grimm, K.J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J.S. (2010). Fine Motor Skills and Early Comprehension of the World: Two New School Readiness Indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46, 1008-1017.

  12. Jennifer Abrams says:

    I think that all too often parents are made to feel that if they do not provide their children with the “latest and greatest” toys, that they are doing their children an injustice.

    However, I think that the true injustice may be in having too many of these types of toys around as the children grow in their home. Babies and toddlers find EVERYTHING fascinating, because the world is new to them. If they are constantly bombarded with new, shiny, loud, bright toys, they may fail to see the world around them and learn from their environment.

    *as a side note, I find the word “why” to be inspiring, not annoying. When did we stop asking why, and how has our life become because of it?

  13. I am really glad that I found this blog post. I teach high school students, so much of my knowledge about learning is focussed around that.
    My sisters recently had a baby, and this information will be really great to pass onto her.
    Thank you for your informative post.

    1. You are very welcome…so glad that it resonated.

  14. LauraCLeighton says:

    You and your dust particles…don’t you ever dust?? 😉 Jk. I still like watching dust caught in a sunbeam. And I’m 28. I used to like lying on my parents’ bed, staring at the lightbulb, then looking away, and watching the shapes float across my eyes. My sister & I were talking about how we loved to imagine what the water stains on the ceiling tiles (from leaks in the roof) were. I remember one in particular always looked like “The Little Engine That Could” to me. 🙂

    1. No, I never dust…it’s too impossible to keep up.

  15. Janet I just stumbled on this post when browsing through your archives and I felt I had to comment. When my son was 10 weeks old we went camping with friends (yes 10 weeks, don’t ask where my mind was there!!). We took our beaten old caravan and my most treasured memory of that whole two weeks was watching him watching the curtains blow. The windows had those old lacy curtains and he’d lie on our bed just staring at the curtains and grinning. I would lie next to him reading, but more than not I’d just be baby watching. I’d forgotten how content we both were then.
    Thanks for the reminder that sometimes doing nothing is the best thing for both of us 🙂

    1. Ah, such a lovely comment and story, Ro. Thank you!

  16. Hi Janet,
    I facilitate parent & infant/toddler classes in New Zealand and for over a year now I have been regularly sharing your work with my parents on our facebook page. Your writings are incredibly insightful, helpful and much appreciated in our little corner of the world. This one motivated me to write to you because your words about ‘familiarity breeds learning’ captured exactly what we feel happens for our babies and toddlers when they come to our classes after awhile. We all love it when we can see that a baby is recognising the place and the people in it and is happy and excited to be there, and when our toddlers run up the path and burst in the door to play!

    1. Yes! I notice the same thing in my classes all the time. There’s a point when the child comes bounding in, completely owning the place! I love it!

      Thank you for your kind words, Fran!

  17. As an infant educarer…I love your blog!

  18. Hedi Garcia says:

    I am an infant toddler teacher at Stony Brook Child Care in Stony Brook, Long Island, NY for 6 years now, previously preschool for 13 years. I continue, with joy, to eliminate the techology use in my classroom with the children while we learn about our senses, our amazing environment and each other. I am also greatful to have this technology to keep my inspired learning from others! Be where your feet are planted now.

  19. Hello Janet,

    still reading your posts after a few years on the mailing list, still learning new stuff and always deeply grateful for the confirmations of my hunches, and the words you provide to explain them to grownups 🙂
    My sales pitch now for self-directed play is ‘it’s her/his day at the office’ (or did I steal it from you??) – but it’s so much more than that. In those cases where I’ve worked with children for two years or more, my learning curve has astounded me, and often I find it hard to convey the endless benefits of the RIE approach because it affects so many interconnected things at once, and heads off so many pitfalls at the pass. To be in a position to beam with genuine delight at a tiny person, to get their jokes, to find them endlessly fascinating in their infinite variety, to me that’s the cherry at the top of the pile. Those passing, but relatively frequent, moments of intense warmth seem to be superfood squared for the child’s soul in general. I had a grandmother who modelled this for me. As far as I can tell, it leads to very high levels of team spirit and cooperation with executive decisions, which leads to more delighted, genuine gratitude from my end. I’m endlessly glad these notions are accessible for all here at your website. On one hand I don’t know how anyone would manage to ‘get’ the whole thing just by bringing up a child or two. I needed way more repeats than that. On the other hand, it is indeed a certain kind of simple to understand.

    I’ve looked after somewhere around seventy individual children in private homes, about half were babies from seven months to toddlers around three years old. What struck me about the video was Sammy’s manual dexterity, how he holds the nappy, and flips it over. Also his confidence, firstly in his surroundings – he checked once at the beginning that a trusted carer was available, then not til the very end – and also in his own play techniques. He seemed generally very coordinated, the way he moved around the playpen, and especially when he dug the purple toy out from underneath himself, joy and rapture! He made it look easy.

    The first time I saw anything like this approach, and this kind of fluid , almost grown-up movement, was looking after twin boys, from the age of seven months, for close to three years. I had only ever changed one nappy at that point, and voiced my great concerns to their mum. She was finishing psychology studies, and said “you’ll be fine!” and we had a really good time in fact. From about the age of ten months, they were allowed to play in the (cleared of small objects) next room for a little while if their mum had typing to do, and tended to egg each other on and generally hothouse each other. For a short period, one or other of them would often have a decent new bruise somewhere or other when I turned up each week , but it was over very quickly as they gained in balance and judgement.

    I took them for the first time to the nearby adventure playground. They made a beeline for the big pyramid where you go round and and up and up, intended for ages three or four and up. They were about one and a half. I nearly had a hernia – for the first time I couldn’t spot for them both at once, so we didn’t go back, but I’ll never forget the looks on the other parents’ faces as these two shuffled along the first levels like pros. One of them had reached the height of my shoulder by the time I realised they weren’t going to stop, and i had to get them down.

    We always did improvised singing together on the way home, that was our special thing, culminating in a fabulously dischordant chorale in the stairwell which had great accoustics.

    Hope you get a laugh out of this. I still do.

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