Learn, Baby, Learn

By Christopher Byrne

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at Berkely in California, and she has a lot that’s important to say about learning. Last week, she wrote an insightful article for the New York Times.

What it boils down to is this: Children learn through play. No, it’s not stop-the-presses revelation, but it is important for parents, teachers and caregivers to recall. In essence, so much of our educational system is results oriented, and what Gopnik and her research show is that learning is a process. As children build mental capabilities through experimentation (aka play), they are putting in place the foundation of an ability to learn.

What is especially fascinating is that Gopnik’s research distinguishes between the infant brain and the brain of an older child, demonstrating the different ways in which they learn. Where I might differ with her is that the kind of play/learning an infant engages in is not relevant to the kind of learning children begin once they start in school—many of whom will be doing just that in the next few weeks.

The ability to ask “What if?” or “What happens when?” are the essential questions of research and learning. They contribute to writing, math and science as well as in the arts. It is the process of exploration that reinforces learning, and as children move through the grades and acquire more information, their ability to apply it is directly related to the ability to ask those seminal questions.

Learning comes not so much from a facility with memorizing and regurgitating information but to be able to use the information that is being learned and/or perceived to make new connections and new actions. Gopnik writes about an infant’s ability to comprehend probability with an experiment related to ping-pong balls. Being able to perceive what should happen based on experience is a key learning. It’s something that takes on more sophistication, but is used in Head Start programs and on shows like Sesame Street. That learning began at the time a child began to encounter his or her world and understand its structure and what is likely to happen in any given situation. This is not merely intellectual development; it’s survival as well, and preparation for a time when the baby will have to live outside of its parents’ protection.

Nor is this limited to infants, really. Inherent curiosity is a natural human trait. It’s how we experience and grow. Trying on new things, whether it’s a put-and-take shape sorting toys, a geometric proof or the development of a business plan all have essential elements of play built into their individual processes. It all starts with, “Let’s see what happens when…”

What parents can do with infants is to provide a wholesome environment for this exploration. There are many wonderful infant toys that reinforce just this kind of play. And, guess what? They work even better when the child can be with a parent or caregiver and be in control of the play experience. Freeing the infant mind to learn and explore, is an essential first step in creating a curious and capable student.  And aren’t we glad it’s so much fun?

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