infant development

June 30, 2011

Water Play and Exploration

With summer in full swing, we will all be doing lots of water play over the next few months. Water play and exploration is one of the classic open-ended play experiences that can provide hours and hours of engagement for your baby as they figure out how this stuff called water works. There are lots of ways to make your baby’s time with water a rich experience full of discovery and learning. My company, eebee’s Adventures, is offering a free video download that models lots of great filling and spilling adventures. To download yours (or pass it along to friends) just follow this link: http://eebee.com/waterplay/sk.html

While on duty watching your little one in the pool or at the beach, look for the hidden secrets your child is discovering while exploring water. Those seemingly simple pours or splashes probably involve some serious thinking and problem solving that we adults don’t readily see. And it is a lot of fun to speculate about what is going on inside that little mind.

Take my daughter Whitney at the pool in the videos below, when I slowed down and really observed her play, there were lots of really interesting nuggets of thinking I could notice. This first video shows her transferring water back and forth between cups:

We take for granted the transferability of water. That of course when you pour from one cup to the other, the same amount of water is going to show up in the new cup (eg the law of conservation). However, our little ones do not take this for granted and want to experiment again again to test what will happen.

There is a lot of stuff they find fascinating that we view as trivial. Here a serious interest in “Overflow”:

Of course, we don’t pour additional water into a cup that is full but our toddlers will do it again and again. They are discovering the personality of water. It overflows down the sides when they continue to pour in the cup.

Lastly, what happens when another cup is pushed down instead of another — aha! –Displacement occurs:

While they are running their experiments in understanding water, they are also exercising all sorts of thinking, communication, social & emotional and physical skills. Again, this is how the richest learning works. In the context of figuring out something they care about, and show an interest in, they challenge and exercise all the budding skills of development from the physical skill of twisting their wrists to pour the water to the cognitive skill of trying out, remembering and employing the tactic that delivers the desired result. So try to be as creative as you can in supplying tools and encouraging play extensions that come to mind based on what interests your child. Over the summer, there will be lots of opportunities

February 28, 2011

The Strength of Group Play

Last week we discussed the “tiger mom” parenting debate and my mantra was:
“The key to parenting best practices is to tune into your child’s unique mind and profile of strengths and help them become who they truly are. Assume their mind and profile is a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Our job as parents and educators is to bring out those brilliant gifts by finding great ways to engage that mind in meaningful ways — with activities, projects, and education that challenge and cultivate that richness.”

I realize that it is easier said then done. How do we actually identify and engage our child’s uniqueness.

One simple observation is that we see our child’s strengths by comparing and contrasting their behaviors to what other kids are doing around their age & stage. Sports is a great example, I had no clue about my son’s athletic and soccer skills until he joined a soccer team and I saw him playing with others. Watching him play in the backyard alone was not nearly as helpful as seeing him play in a context with others his age.

I know that it is politically correct these days to say we never want to compare our kids to others and I do understand the downside risk of comparing motivated by a desire to brag about our child or to satisfy our own pride of raising the “best” kids. Instead we want to be motivated by a chance to really get to know our own child better. The simple fact is that every child is unique and they give off signals all the time about what makes them so. Group settings help us see those signals more clearly. We want to expose our kids to a diverse range of activities so that we can actually see what most interests them, heightens their joy and draws out their skills and lets them shine.

September 28, 2010

Early Logic Adventures- Figuring things out

Once our babies start to sit up, this milestone opens a whole new range of exploration. Their hands free up and whatever they can get them on, they want to explore and manipulate. Here Whitney, gets her hands on one of Dad’s shoes — grabbing the shoelace, bringing it to her mouth, flapping it around, tugging on it til the shoe moves. These explorations help her “figure out” the shoe or any object for that matter:

As mentioned last post, one of the first steps in the development in logic is a baby’s realization that he or she can make something happen. As our babies’ day-to-day experiences accumulate, they begin to notice patterns in their world. They begin to organize and integrate the world into spatial and sequential categories. They explore the features of different objects and learn to “figure things out” — what makes a shoe a shoe, a ball a ball, etc. Bring a bunch of varied objects into their reach and enjoy the show.

September 8, 2010

Early Logic Adventures- Making things happen

Our little ones don’t start their logic careers with the 123s, shapes, and colors: instead, they figure out that when they do something, it can make something else happen in the world. So if they give you a big smile, you will give them a big smile back. This is early cause and effect and babies are discovering this by 3 months of age. They are learning this across all aspects of their life. When in a crib or on a playmat, if they kick the bell it will make a sound. In the video below, my daughter Whitney, discovers that when she makes her legs hit the ball it moves and makes a sound:

By three months, our babies demonstrate that they can remember that they know that doing one thing makes another thing happen and show that they can make it happen–again and again. With Whitney’s ability to coordinate vision, reaching and kicking, something even more dramatic is happening to her mind. She is learning that she can make interesting things happen AND can remember them for short periods of time! Coordinating eye, hand and foot movement is a remarkable achievement but it is the feeling of mastery at making things work that truly promotes our babies’ conceptual and logical development. The more opportunities we offer that enable them to “make things happen”, the stronger this critical foundation for logic and learning.

August 11, 2010

Baby Babblin’

Another early language skill that we all experience and hold precious during that first year is babbling. Our babies’ babbles are some of the first experiments with sounds that eventually turn into language. In the video below, Whitney creates a “DaDaDa” pattern of babble and repeats it in a sing sound babble. After a couple repetitions, she adds a new ending to the sign song and repeats that:

These babbling patterns are voice structures that serve as a foundation for speaking sentences at a later date. Whitney has even taken a basic voice structure, the “dadada” and added some slight variations to the end. In this way she invents the idea that a core sentence can have different endings and thereby slightly different meaning. Although her babble has no meaning, it has a linguistic structure that prepares her for finding ways to express herself.

Sounds, coos and babbling are the important foundations for later language skills. The ability to even control her mouth positions to produce a Da or a Ga or a Ma is no small feat. Another aspect is the turn taking nature of the babbles if you simply repeat the babble sounds you here your baby making, you will see how they give you space to finish your turn and then they read that cue and then take their turn. This is important skill for back and forth conversations. There are lots of rich language skill building opportunities to support your budding linguist.

April 27, 2010

Exploring the Cabinets

For our babies almost any place and anything around the home is a world to explore– take drawers and cabinets. We have all seen our babies’ beeline for a drawer we just put something away in or the cabinet in the bathroom we just opened. Frequently my initial impulse is to say “no, no” that is not for you. But instead of going with that habitual response, when I can catch myself I say go right ahead; let’s explore this place and these things together. In fact when we do there are a lot of neat things to discover. The video below shows how a quick tour through the bathroom sink cabinet yields a bounty of learning and development with language, thinking and problem solving, and social interaction. Click to view:

This cabinet has a foot scrapper, and clothing iron, hair curls and more interesting stuff for Whitney. Now if  this stuff was hot like the clothing iron and the hair curls these are a no-no but while cold in the cabinet why not explore them. The clothing iron has a container for water, a button to press and a cool control knob to turn. Whitney exercises her problem solving skills in figuring out how these features work. She exercises her language skills as she finds the vocabulary to use for the “wa-wa” container. She exercises her social skills looking to me for approval and emotional support for her forays while I still nervously say “no-no” eventhough cold in the cabinet it is all safe for her exploration. And then she finishes with a flurry of door closing as she reveals her understanding of what happens when we are all done.  See these simple little ordinary moments can be quite the Learning Adventure. Eebee’s DVD episode Little Objects, Big Ideas is all about turning these everyday things into rich learning explorations.

These opportunities for learning adventures happen throughout the day in all sorts of settings. Reading the Who’s Your Daddy post titled Explore Your World reminded me that there are an almost infinite amount of opportunities to dive in and explore things around the house or as his post suggests around the neighborhood as well.  We parents just need to slow down, use a new lens to see all these opportunities and then jump right in with our babies.

February 4, 2010

Awareness & Reflective Thought- Part 1

Even more fundamental then language is the development of our unique human awareness and reflective thought. Believe it or not, when a young baby’s hand goes whizzing by her face, she actually has no idea that it is her own hand. A baby’s consciousness and awareness is nothing like an adult humans. They are trapped in the here and now and cannot yet even separate a perception from an action. When my daughter Whitney was hungry, she cried for food. When she was uncomfortable she let out a distress cry. Initially most emotions are “catastrophic” where the  immediate environment or situation overwhelms them. So how do newborns become aware of and regulate their emotions. How do they become aware of a past, present and future with all the requisite images and symbols to represent each. How does the “me in my world” mental models develop where we form intentions, create images and scenarios in mind to act upon those intentions. By the time they are three most of these important aspects of awareness and thought are in place. How does a baby master this amazing transformation?

PlainMirror

An important first task is perceptual categorization and awareness. When comfortable and calm babies can attend to the external world of sights, sounds and other senses. Infants not only attend to stimuli; but also learn to attend selectively to slight differences.  For example, if the child hears the same tone three or four times, its power to orient the child diminishes. But change the tone just one note higher or lower and the infant becomes interested again, indicating that he has noticed the difference.

Initially babies experience a limited number of global states such as calmness, excitement, and distress. As they experience a range of sensations, they begin to develop more nuanced emotions and responses. Each sensation of sight or sound, taste or smell as registered by the baby gives rise to an affect or emotion. A blanket can be smooth and pleasant or scratchy and irritating; a loud voice can be inviting or jarring.  The sensation gets coded with both its physical features and its emotional effect. Sensory impressions are increasingly tied to feelings in this “duel code”.  Emotions help organize the world for the baby. Inner emotional tones are used to make sense of experience to eventually label and organize, store and retrieve emerging images and memories. Babies have a base level awareness of being alive and discriminating the effects of different sensations—called primary consciousness.

Another critical early step is translating this emotional interest in sensations to form a relationship and become engaged in the world. Babies will become progressively more interested in certain people like mom & dad. In the second quarter of life, babies begin to engage with joyful smiles and coos developing a deep sense of pleasurable intimacy.  A key to deepening this intimacy is the rhythm and timing of parent and baby interactions – such as the back and forth coos and smiles exchanged in face to face play. Our babies begin to distinguish the joys and pleasures of the human world from the joys and pleasures of the inanimate world of objects, They are beginning on the long journey of recognizing patterns and organizing perceptions into meaningful categories.

A third step to broadening awareness and thought is transforming these pleasurable emotions with parent interactions into signals of communication and intentionality. Our babies begin to smile in order to get a smile back; reaches for grandpas nose to get a “honk-honk” sound. Our babies begin to engage in back and forth emotional signaling. Instead of an immediate narrow action, babies begin to transform emotions into interactive signals that express that emotion. Different physical gestures such as vocalizations and facial expressions are the means of this signaling. These interactions help an infant separate perceptions from fixed actions. Unlike most of the animal kingdom, humans can form an image, or mental representation, that is less tied to action. Once food exists as an image separated from crying that image can be used for new purposes such as signaling intent or eventually planning and problem solving.

This early awareness or consciousness leads to a more articulate self-awareness. When do babies actually come to realize that the hand moving in front of their face is theirs– that “I am me”– this ability to form an image or mental representation of themselves in their mind. Consider an infant looking into a mirror.  Does the infant think, “That’s me” or “That’s a baby?”  It is not until around their first birthday that they begin to know the image is themselves in the mirror. Self-awareness begins slowly with the recognition that one’s own body moves in expected ways. A child knows that kicking “my feet” can happen at times that are useful (getting a blanket off my legs).  This does not mean that the infant has words or even mental images of “baby Whitney;” But this sense of agency, that effects can happen when useful, creates the ground from which self-awareness grows.

About the end of the first year babies begin to understand that the image in the mirror “belongs” to them.  For example, if the child is wearing a lightweight cap to which he has habituated (no longer remembers it is there), upon seeing himself in the mirror he may reach up to touch or remove the hat.  His behavior suggests that he knows the image belongs to him and not some generic baby.

January 26, 2010

Language Development- Part 3

During the third year of language development, early advantages compound as two year olds have learned that words represent things and know enough words to help them figure out new words by context very quickly.  You may notice your child making good, quick guesses as to what certain words mean.  This is called fast mapping the meaning of new words.  I noticed that if I used a sentence with all familiar words except one, but the context was familiar Whitney would quickly figure out the meaning of the new word. Two year olds are best able to carry on a conversation with others when there are only two people involved in the conversation (see video at http://bit.ly/6Ueixh).

Picture 5

As Whitney started having more conversations with others, she would also begin to recognize if her message was understood and to repeat it and clarify if necessary. This is an important step in effectively communicating with others. While this ability generally emerges around 2 ½ year of age, it isn’t until children are older, that they ask for clarification from others when they do not understand. Children are also learning to use language to demand reasons from others, which makes it possible for children to test limits and challenge caregivers verbally.  Whitney began to ask why she couldn’t have a cookie before dinner and would even use language to try to negotiate, most often in the form of pleading, to persuade us otherwise. By the time they are 3, our children have learned to use language to express their feelings, to try to resolve a conflict with someone else, to negotiate and to make their needs and wants known. They have mastered an enormous amount in these brief few years.

All of these early language developments then have an influence on the later developments of multiple academic and social skills during preschool, primary school, and beyond. So language in particular is a key skill to nurture and support in our babies.  It is important to note that what is not mentioned for support is flash cards nor anything about the ABCs. Language develops as your baby interacts with and shows an interest in real things. So as you play with water, blocks, balls and other things around the house, narrate what is happening, describe the details to keep the flow of language a rich source of stimuli for your baby. If your baby has siblings around the house that will also help increase the language a baby hears. In addition, the media we choose makes a difference. Research now shows that Baby Einstein is not well designed for language acquisition; but content does matter, Baby TV that has different design features such as eebee’s Adventures better supports a babies’ need for language acquisition in a context that makes sense for babies at a pace they can follow.

December 9, 2009

Learning Through Play

Our babies love to explore and make sense of their world as I have described in my blogs over the last several weeks– from solids (like blocks and balls)  to liquids (like water) to light (by exploring their shadows from the sun). We adults have labeled these investigations or mucking around as  “play” since the children are really enjoying themselves; to the untrained eye, it certainly does not look like work. But play is a child’s work.

Who's that in the mirror

Who's that in the mirror

And children are highly motivated in their jobs – - to figure all this stuff out. There is an intrinsic human drive to explore and master one’s environment so we just need to harness that energy and effort. How our children do their work is very concrete; they need to get their hands, mouths and bodies on things to test them out and see what they are all about. An important fact that we have not yet discussed much is how these real concrete contexts and experiences are the vehicle for all their learning—Learning Through Play. All the stuff we think of as learning and intelligence gets exercised and develops through our babies’ hands-on explorations and experiences.

Take language development: babies don’t start out an experience saying “geez I would really like to build my vocabulary by 10 new words”. The language development is embedded into and a by-product of what they are doing and other goals. Babies want to figure something out and daddy keeps calling that thing they are fascinated with by the name “shadow”, so that vocabulary word is very meaningful to them and sticks with them. The shadow then leaps forward closer to them when they walk close to a “wall”; dad narrates the action so they learn the word “wall” because it created an exciting effect they were interested in. Vocabulary building and language development happens while our babies engage in something meaningful to them and that context provides the opportunity for all the vocabulary about the specific actions, objects, features and effects that activity affords.  Flash cards provide no context so they are not as effective; nothing beats a real authentic experience and real interest for learning. This is true of the development of all competences as well as language—a babies social & emotional skills, their cognitive skills, physical skills and all.

What do we as adults and parents want our children to be learning while they go about actively exploring their world & “playing”? Language development, certainly important, is considered one of a broader category of competences. Experts have identified three important categories of learning and development that we should know about and try to gently embed into our child’s explorations and experiences. These are the 3 Cs: Character, Competences, and Concepts and I will explore each in my next post.

November 9, 2009

Paper Play

A material we don’t think of as a toy or something for babies to play with is paper, but actually we could not be more mistaken. Babies love to explore paper. As mentioned in my first post (8/26), babies will often spend more time with the wrapping paper and the box then the present inside. They love to see the many things paper can do: flap, bend, crease, wad, tear, crackle, crunch, flutter! They love all the sounds they can make with it. Who hasn’t seen their baby grab onto some paper and give it a test ride:

- it's baby math

- it's baby math

As an infant, Whitney couldn’t wait to get her hands on some white fluffy paper. She was intent on trying out all sorts of paper transformations (see video at RaisingWhit.com / http://bit.ly/237Kf3). She discovered that paper can easily tear unlike wood, plastic and most other objects; that paper once torn it  cannot meld back together; that paper can float in the air and does not fall like a block; it can bend but not bounce like a ball; that it can fold over but does not keep its shape and fops back.   She was learning the class of transformations that define “paper.”

As a toddler, Whitney began to develop more complex concepts about paper. In general paper play orients children to the power of using a single plane (flat surfaces) and what happens when that plane is folded into the third dimension. It gains structure that transforms the surface into an object with functions– Wow, I made a ball that I can throw! The plane of the paper can hide things; it can be transformed to three- dimensional structures; it can be combined to create new shapes.  Paper invites the exploration of these relations by transforming one form into another.  Rules for combining paper segments have almost a mathematic quality and indeed can be viewed as a precursor to an understanding of combination: e.g. symmetrical halves make a continuous whole, folding-in makes a half while folding-out makes a whole, and so forth.  By allowing your child to explore these concepts in an open-ended medium, you support your child’s ability to understand early math/fractions in a real and enduring way.

Our role in all this paper exploration is to realize the many opportunities there are to invite this type of play. Before you throw out the newspaper or the mail, let your child give it a whirl. Set up some space for the play and figure out what is of most interest. Think of some action that we can do that increases or complicates slightly what our child is doing. As an infant, if our child curves the paper, we curve and then crease the paper.  If our child flaps the paper while holding onto it, we flap the paper and let it go. As they get older and start folding paper to create things, we can start a fold that they can finish; or we can model lining up the edges of the paper in order to fold it in half.

To see a host of paper play ideas, eebee’s adventures has a great paper adventure in its Exploring Real Stuff DVD currently available in stores like giggle or at www.eebee.com.