These are anxious times, and for many of us parents it's easy to translate that anxiety into pushing our children to learn more, better, faster. I just read a delightful "Whoa, there!" from Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley who studies how small children learn. Her view: Babies are smarter than you think. They might even be smarter than you.
Babies think differently from us, and that's a very good thing, Gopnik says. They notice everything, particularly what's new and surprising. We adults, alas, ignore all that exciting stuff to stay focused on what's useful, whether it's finishing the report at work or buying the groceries. Neuroscientists increasingly believe that many of the big differences between baby and grown-up thinking arise from differences in brain structure and function. Babies' brains have many more neural connections than adults'. As children mature, brain connections become more specialized, particularly in the teenage years, when unused brain connections are pruned to create an adult brain that's a fast, efficient thinking machine.
Gopnik's research, in which she watches children observe the world and experiment with it, provides real-world examples of how this works. For instance, she found that preschoolers can use probability to figure out which of two blocks is more likely to make a specially wired machine light up. Her new book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), explains all this in detail, but you can get quickly up to speed on the latest in a delightful op-ed she wrote for yesterday's New York Times: Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think.
Since small children don't learn the way adults or even older children do, it doesn't make sense to subject them to flashcards, vocabulary drills, or other "learning" aids that marketers push on well-meaning parents. Instead, Gopnik says, they should be left to explore, play with toys that mimic real-world tools like phones and kitchen equipment, and imitate their parents. (I shudder to remember how my daughter imitated me swiping a credit card when she was still a baby. Let's not even think about the pretend cellphone conversations.) She also gently lobbies against the "No Child Left Behind" efforts to push academics into preschool. I'm not an expert on early childhood education, but I can say from my own nosy-parent observation that "academic" kindergarten offers few benefits for quite a few of its enrollees, who really need another year or so on the playground, imitating Star Wars heroes or jumping in mud puddles, before they're ready to sit still and stay on task.
And for us worried parents, what better time than the dog days of August to imitate the babies: open our minds to the world and explore something new? As I typed this, my 6-year-old daughter drew and cut out full-size paper instruments: a flute, a guitar, and a violin. Then she serenaded me. I think it's time I joined in the concert.