Babies are brilliant

A fascinating video (about fifteen minutes long) of psychologist Alison Gopnik talking about how babies are the best learning machines in the universe.  I have been working with very young children quite a bit over the past few years (through music) and, while it was never hard to appreciate that they are amazing beings, I never quite made the leaps that Ms Gopnik lead me to consider:

  • She points out the importance of experimentation, that babies are little scientists.  Why do so many children give up at music?  Is it because they aren’t given the chance to experiment (…with the guidance of someone who understands music)?  I don’t think people need to be ‘musicians’ to play musically with their kids but there’s a discomfort associated with music play that isn’t there if it’s colour play or shapes or building blocks.  How can I, as someone who understands music, best help children experiment with musical sounds and rhythm?
  • Experimenting isn’t telling somebody something!  We all learn loads of stuff at school but the vast majority of it, I’d say, we don’t really understand.  We know about gravity not because we learned about it in school but because we played with it as children.  By the time we get to school our experimentation has to be more efficient – the best teachers are always the ones who lead you to the answer, who let you experiment (materially or mentally); importantly (and efficiently), they guide you.
  • Yes, when we start school, we have to practice skills to get to be as good as possible, be that writing, typing, drawing, singing, long division or shooting baskets (i.e. “hoops”).  Ms Gopnik reveals the staggering notion that children are the best masters of counter-factual reasoning: they aren’t merely learning to understand what is, they are learning to imagine what could be.  How can music play encourage and broaden a child’s imagination?

A method that’s often used when playing with children, from the earliest smiling, is mirroring.  A friend of mine who works a lot with autistic children showed me the great effectiveness of this as a means of self-expression for the children he saw every week.  I have a little fifteen month old cousin who lives next door and the other day he was over with his Mum and I produced some tuned hand bells to play with.  Initially I gave him one (a ‘B’) then, after a few minutes of him getting used to it (showing it to everyone, ringing it constantly, pausing to taste it of course…), I got another (a ‘G’).  So we were making a nice, harmonious major third sound (I told him this, but I don’t know if it meant anything…).  We played for a good while with the bells – a high point being when he had the G and B and I had the A and C.  He would ring, I would copy and this – because of the choice of notes – sounded good.  We started experimenting and I followed his lead, setting the bells in front of me as he had done.  He chose one, I did the same.  He took one of mine, I took one of his, etc…  Great fun 🙂

My overqualified brain had to go and ruin things, of course, by introducing too many more bells (some were desk bells that are struck with the palm, not rung, and these confused the issue) until the cacophony became too overwhelming.  When I gave him a little glockenspiel it was just too abstracted and he couldn’t ‘see’ the individual notes as clearly as he’d been able to with the hand bells.  The mistake was in presenting too many possibilities.  Too many toys.  Like in House when he sends the team off to test for everything and they potter off glumly to the lab to face a night of haystack-needling.

Tadhg and I playing with bells
Tadhg and I playing with bells (photo by Jenny Wilson - click to visit her Flickr photostream)
Experimenting with bells
Experimenting with bells (photo by Jenny Wilson - click to visit her Flickr photostream)

Can’t wait to play some more – you should try it!

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