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Age of Discovery

Young children learn in their own way, not the way we tell them to learn. With no prodding from adults, they gradually come to understand the world by touching, tasting, building, drawing, running, throwing, and horsing around. Yet parents and teachers fall prey to common myths that, if not dispelled, can hinder children in their learning.

Some years ago I was asked to do a psychological evaluation on a child who had just been admitted to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. The patient was a young teenage girl who had been brought up under extreme circumstances. She was discovered when her mother went to apply for welfare and brought her daughter along. An alert social worker noticed the strange-looking child and had agency officers visit the home. What they found was appalling. The girl had been kept in a 12-foot-by-14-foot room for her entire life. The room had one window with a dirty café curtain, a potty seat, a broken television set, and piles of magazines with the pictures cut out.

Jeannie (not her real name) was 13 years old when she was discovered. Her father thought she was retarded and wanted to keep her from being institutionalized. He committed suicide soon after Jeannie was found. When I first met Jeannie she was at the first percentile for height and weight for her age group. She was stooped over and walked with a halting gait. There were permanent calluses on her buttocks from being tied to a potty chair for hours on end. She had almost no speech and could say only something like “don do dah.” Jeannie did not know how to chew because she had been fed only soft gruel throughout her life.

I couldn’t evaluate Jeannie with any of our standard psychological tests, so I spent a few days observing her on the ward. My most vivid memory of Jeannie was from a brief outing we took to nearby Griffith Park. Jeannie appeared overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. She bent down and picked a dandelion, felt it, smelled it, and twirled it in her hands. A group of picnicking students noticed this strange child and offered her an orange. She hesitated and then took it. She smelled it and rolled it in her fingers but had no idea what to do with it. I took it from her, peeled it, and offered her a section. It was only after I put a piece in my own mouth and smiled that she did likewise. An expression of delight lit up her face as a teardrop of juice ran down her chin.

On the way back to the car, we stopped at a convenience store to buy her an ice cream. Jeannie found a rack loaded with cellophane-wrapped packages of nuts and candy. She touched the packages, smelled them, and listened intently to the crinkly sound this produced. There were so many things to look at, touch, and feel that she could not stop exploring. We finally eased her out of the store and walked back to the car. Just as we approached it, a dog barked, and Jeannie shuddered as if frightened. When we got back to the hospital, Jeannie rushed to the kitchen on the ward, seeking the cook with whom she had become close. It had been a lot of stimulation for her, and she sought comfort by clinging to her new friend. Jeannie had spent her day learning in the way that infants and young children do—through self-initiated exploration and discovery.

I am reminded of Jeannie when I read that computer programs for infants from six months to two years are the fastest-growing software for children. And I also think of Jeannie when I read advertisements for preschools promising to tutor young children to read and do arithmetic. Exposing Jeannie to this type of instruction would have made no sense at all. She helped me understand what was wrong with these infant computer and instructional programs. They are based on three abiding misunderstandings about how infants and young children learn and about the role adults play in their instruction.

All three misunderstandings derive from the fact that it is almost impossible for adults to put themselves in the place of preschoolers and see the world as it appears to them.

The “Watch-Me” Theory
I am not well coordinated and have trouble with ball sports. Nonetheless, I once took tennis lessons to see if I could learn with proper instruction. I never became a good tennis player, but I did learn the difference between a good and a poor tennis instructor. My first instructor kept telling me to watch him as he hit balls coming at us from a machine. When I tried it, the balls were more likely to hit me than I was to hit them, and I did my best to get out of harm’s way. The instructor barely concealed his frustration and disdain at my cowardice and failure to learn. My next instructor was a young woman who watched as I tried unsuccessfully to hit the balls shooting at me. She then stopped the machine and showed me how to position my feet and hold the racquet. She said that it was necessary for me to concentrate on watching the ball to hit it and not getting out of its way. I worked really hard, and now I can sometimes hit the ball.

The point of this anecdote is that the good teacher always watches the learner. Skilled teachers know that children can only imitate actions they can already perform. They cannot learn new, complex skills simply by imitating or watching a teacher. Imagine trying to learn to play the piano by observing a skilled piano player. With infants and young children, who are self-directed learners, the “watch- me” approach often takes the form of the parent or caregiver imposing a different activity onto the one in which the child is actively engaged. In effect the parent is saying, “Never mind what you are doing, watch me.” What the child learns from such instruction is that his learning priorities are not valued by those to whom he is attached.

It is vitally important to encourage self-directed activities. Even if those activities appear meaningless to us, they can have great purpose and significance for the young child. These activities are not random; they have a pattern and organization in keeping with the child’s level of mental ability. Allowing the child time and freedom to complete these activities to her personal satisfaction nourishes that child’s powers of concentration and attention. Left to her own devices, an infant or young child can spend a long time on an activity in which she is deeply immersed. We run the risk of impairing these powers if we don’t respect and value the young child’s self-initiated activity.

The readiness to follow the child’s lead and trust his play priorities can be learned. I watched a mother interacting with her infant, who was looking at something on the far side of the room. The mother tried to interest the child in several different playthings, but to no avail. After a few moments, the mother got clued in and followed her baby’s gaze. The infant was focusing on a brightly colored ribbon on a table across the room. The mother brought the ribbon for the infant to look at and touch. The smile of delight on her infant’s face was enough to ensure that in the future this mother would take cues from her baby.

The “Little Sponge” Theory
When my sons were small, I took them to a three-ring circus. I was looking forward to it because I remembered the thrill of my first circus. I sprang for good seats, not the bleachers—all we could afford when I was a kid. When the show started, I was really ticked that my sons were not paying much attention to what was going on in the rings. Instead they kept their eyes on the vendors moving up and down the aisles selling popcorn, cotton candy, and hot dogs. I tried to draw their attention by pointing and telling them to “look at the lady in the pink dress on the elephant.” Or “look at those men on the trapeze.” They looked, but not for very long. My first reaction was that children today are so spoiled by television that a circus doesn’t present much novelty, compared to what they view on the screen.

A few weeks later, however, my sons began to talk about the circus at the dinner table. They had noticed much more than I assumed. This made me appreciate that a three-ring circus is a lot of stimulation for young children. It takes time and intellectual maturation for children to process information as quickly as adults do. At the circus there are many new things to attend to besides the acts. The tents, the clowns, the vendors, and the other families were all novel, attention-catching stimuli. While I was concentrating on the performers, my sons were responding to the array of other fresh, and therefore interesting, attractions of the circus experience.

The idea that young children learn in the same way and as quickly as we do is behind the “little sponge” theory of learning and instruction. This theory was given credibility when the Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner argued that “you can teach any child any subject at any age in an intellectually responsible way.” But that is only true if you redefine what you mean by “subject.” An infant may begin to appreciate gravity, but she is far from having a knowledge of physics as we understand that concept. Gifted writers for young children are intuitively aware of this developmental difference in the level and speed of a child’s information processing ability. They choose their words and pace their stories accordingly. Consider Dr. Seuss’s book Hop on Pop: The Simplest Seuss for the Youngest Use. Each page is devoted to a few simple words in large print accompanied by an amusing sketch:

We see a bee.
Pat sat on a hat.

It takes a special talent to think like a child and write at a child’s level of understanding and speed of processing. For most adults, who think in more complex ways, it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine the world as it is seen and heard by infants and young children.

Nonetheless, those who subscribe to the little-sponge method of instruction have interpreted recent brain-growth research to support their position. Brain growth is most rapid during the first few years of life. Subscribers to the little-sponge method of instruction argue that this period of rapid brain growth is the time when children can learn the most and the fastest. We should, therefore, throw as much as we can at them during this “critical period.” Many programs that teach children reading and math at the preschool level are based on this interpretation of brain-growth research. This interpretation, however, is really not supported by the evidence.

Infants and young children are not little sponges who readily absorb all information thrown at them. They take more time to process information than adults do, at a lower level of abstraction and complexity. In part, this difference reflects their immature mental ability. But it also gives evidence of the fact that their world is still new to them—as it was for Jeannie. Infants and young children dawdle because they are looking at the world with fresh eyes and ears. They are caught up and excited by much that we take for granted.

The “Look Harder” Theory
Consider the following thought experiment. As you are reading this sentence, it appears to you that the meaning of the words is on the page. Now read this: Jetzt müssen Sie in die Stadt gehen. Unless you can read German, the meaning of those words is no longer on the page. This little experiment makes it obvious that the meaning is in our heads. When we become expert at a skill, the process becomes automatic and unconscious. In addition, we tend to externalize the outcome. Even though we construct the meaning of the words on the page, it seems to us that the meaning is objective—and has nothing to do with what is going on in our heads.

In general, externalization is an adaptive process. Once we have learned a concept of, say, “dog,” we tend to see “dogness” in the animal we are looking at. It would be inefficient if we had to try and figure out what a dog, a car, or a pineapple was every time we encountered one. Our tendency to externalize concepts once we have acquired them works well—except when our task is to teach infants and young children. The world seems so “out there,” so independent of our mental processes, that it is difficult for us to appreciate that the infant and young child literally see the world differently than we do. When children don’t see what we do, we may be tempted to believe that they are not looking hard enough. If only they looked harder, they would see it. This is not unlike our tendency to talk louder to someone who doesn’t understand English.

In my studies of perceptual development, I was able to demonstrate that a child’s view of the world is indeed different from an adult’s. In one of these studies, I used a set of drawings in which a whole was made out of distinctive parts. For example, there was a man made out of fruit, with an apple for a head, a pear for a body, bananas for legs, and bunches of grapes for arms.

We showed these and similar drawings to large numbers of four- to nine-year-old children. Young children recognized the parts but not the whole; they named the individual fruits but not the man. At about five or six, there is a transitional stage where children reported seeing the man but then changed their minds and named the fruits. It was only at seven or eight that children spontaneously said, “A man made out of fruit.” At this age, they had the mental ability to see that one and the same thing could be two things at once, an apple and a head, for instance. Asking a child who does not yet have the ability to see the man made of fruit to “look harder” is both frustrating and demoralizing to the child.

Many infants and young children faced with computer programs and instructional videos are in much the same position as children asked to see the man made of fruit before they have attained the necessary mental abilities: they can easily end up confused and disheartened. The look-harder method of instruction is bad pedagogy for older children but is particularly harmful to infants and young children, who know for themselves what they have to learn. Indeed, they are programmed to learn the basic adaptive skills and concepts necessary for survival. Most infants and young children have the good sense to ignore or resist such intrusions into their self-directed learning. But if adults push too intensely on the look-harder materials, even infants and young children can get discouraged and give up.

Because we adults see the external world as independent of our mental activity, we fail to appreciate how much the infant and young child have to learn during the early years. We are not born knowing what things are sweet and what sour, what things are blue and what green. We are not born knowing that one and the same thing can be two things at once. As adults we have trouble believing that we do not come into the world aware that some objects fall when you let them go, and that some objects float in water while others sink. The external world seems so real and “out there” that it is difficult to comprehend that young children don’t see and know the same world we do. Yet they do not.

During the early years of life, children are quite literally visiting a foreign country. They do not learn by “watching,” “absorbing,” or “looking harder.” They learn by constructing and reconstructing this new world through play. One moment the child is a naturalist busily examining a grasshopper, the next an artist putting impressions on paper, the next a writer describing an experience in highly original language, and always a sociologist exploring the potential of social interaction.

These many roles are fulfilled with joyous excitement. This is why it makes no sense to rush infants and young children into computers, television, and academics. Why intrude on a time when children are so primed to learn what they need to learn with glee?

For 28 years, DAVID ELKIND, a professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, has taught Tufts students about how best to help children flourish and learn. Although he’s retiring, that’s probably not quite the right word to describe the next stage of his life. He won’t be teaching at Tufts, but he’ll be busy writing, lecturing, and giving interviews. His latest book is The Power of Play, from which our article is excerpted.

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