By Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.
Scholastic Parent and Child, April/May 1998
Dr. Sterling explains how babies learn through exploration of their
environment with all of their senses. She offers suggestions for the
role of adults in stimulating childrens natural desire to learn. By
looking, touching, and tasting, your baby is on a quest to make sense
of the world. Take some of the ideas
and try them out. -- Julie Loe
Babies are born explorers, and their hands, eyes, and mouths are
the indispensable tools of their trade. In the first months of life,
infants will deliberately shift their gaze in order to explore their
environment visually, and they'll suck at their fingers vigorously
to get a taste of those interesting protrusions.
Very quickly, however, the explorations become more complex. At about
4 to 5 months, babies will begin to pull at and entwine their fingers.
They'll also discover, by waving a hand all around, that the palm
and the back of the hand look different. At 5 to 6 months, they'll
use voluntary hand movements to obtain objects to study for
example, they'll reach out to grab a toy to touch or a rattle to shake.
How babies discover
What methods do infants use to explore? Just like scientists, they're
constantly employing trial and error to find out how things work.
Over and over again, an infant will kick and swipe at a nursery mobile
to see how the pieces move.
Similarly, a 5-month-old will repeatedly crumple and tear sheets
of paper to deduce the best way to shred things into little pieces.
At about a year, the world becomes a treasure chest of things to
figure out. How do I put on Papa's eyeglasses? How do I make Mama's
shiny car keys jingle? By touching and tasting, your child tries to
learn what things are made of and what she can do with fascinating
Your baby uses all her senses to explore her world.
Babies are also liberal users of cause and effect as a method of
learning. The most wonderful toys for toddlers are those that do something
when the child does something, thus reinforcing the notion of causality.
It's not just toys, however, that teach this vital concept. The earliest
cause-and-effect lessons are what I call "gut syllogisms."
A baby will figure out intuitively, "If I cry when I'm hungry,
someone will cuddle and nurse me." Thus, babies learn that they
can cause things to happen around them mostly by crying and
As they begin to walk and talk, babies realize that they can cause
responses in far more varied ways: If a thirsty toddler calls out
"juice," a caregiver will hand her a cup; if a determined
baby slides a cabinet door open, she gains access to a toy car inside.
Such victories increase a child's confidence in her own abilities.
On hand and fun to explore
||Plastic measuring cups
||Plastic measuring spoons
||Plastic nesting bowls and storage
||Pots and pans
||Empty shoe and cereal boxes
||Empty ice cube trays
The role of adults
What can you do to foster your child's natural desire to explore
the world and keep those explorations safe?
||Babyproof your environment. When babies
become mobile, put any breakable treasures away or at least
high up. Place safety latches on floor-level cabinets containing
dangerous or off-limits materials. Talk with your caregiver about
your baby's compelling need to cruise around and the importance
of making child-care spaces safe for such infant adventures.
||Plan appropriate explorations. You
and your caregiver should provide opportunities for your baby
to taste, squeeze, push, pull, bounce, poke, roll, slide, and
build with toys. A good start is to offer opportunities for some
simple science experiments: Drop a potato and watch as it falls
but doesn't bounce the way a ball does; explore gravity by rolling
a toy down an incline; observe the relationship of a container
to its contents by pouring water into plastic cups.
||Choose toys with discovery potential.
Provide materials that challenge your baby to explore the physics
of balancing (such as blocks, stacking rings, and nesting cups)
or toys that spur your child to problem-solve (a xylophone makes
the best music if you rap the stick at just the right angle).
By offering a rich and varied environment for safe explorations,
you'll be giving your baby precious opportunities to extract principles
about how the world works and you'll keep the world of wonder
alive for your budding scientist!
Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., is professor emerita of child development
at Syracuse University.