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Parents Corner

Baby Discoveries

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 new objects.

Your baby uses all her senses to explore her world.

Understanding causality

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 smiling.

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 containers
Plastic pitchers
Wooden spoons
Pots and pans
Empty shoe and cereal boxes
Tennis balls
Empty ice cube trays
Frisbees

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.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013