Be Careful of What You Teach

I love when science catches up to what Magda Gerber knew almost a half century ago.

In a recent email from ​ChildcareExchange​, I learned about a ​study​, published just last year, in which researchers found evidence of one of Magda’s maxim’s…be careful of what you’re teaching: it may interfere with what they are learning.

This study gathered 66 mothers of infants and put them into two simple groups…one group was instructed to teach their baby; the other was instructed to learn from their baby. And what they found was that the harder we work to instruct babies, the more we actually start to intrude on their learning (take over the focus of the play or task) which has the impact of interrupting the child’s exploration and actually overstimulating babies. They gave the example of a child exploring ​nesting cups​: “a parent might try to get the baby to understand that the little cup goes inside the big cup…when the baby is more interested in the cup’s mouthfeel and how it sounds when whacked on the floor.”

This is precisely the reason I like to stock my playspace with open-ended toys, as much as possible: things that have no right or wrong way to use them. Of course, we clever adults can always find a right and wrong way to use objects, which is why we practice observing (instead of engaging) in classes. And when we watch, we will see that children very naturally get to everything we want to teach them…and more! It allows us to see what they child is learning…and it lets children linger a little longer in the world of possibilities and discovery.

I loved this line form the study, in particular: “Infants are full of wonder…They thrive on exploration, and when an adult interrupts that process to try and impose a lesson on them, ‘No, no. You need to push the button, not lick it,’ it’s not so fun anymore.” It reminded me of ​this part​ of the classic ​Seeing Infants with New Eyes​…what does it say about our idea of children and their capabilities when we think they are just “fiddling around?” As the researchers found, “The irony of this push to have the baby master the material is that it can have the opposite effect and shut down the child’s natural drive to learn and understand.”

I’ll never forget the time I got to watch a young child discover, for the first time, how to allow my little cars to race down a ramp. (I could swear I’ve written about this before, but I can’t find the link…if you’ve heard this story before, I apologize…and invite you to listen again and see what you might hear this time.)

So, there she was, just me and her and her Nona (Grandma). She (a bit over two at the time) was driving my little cars around, pushing them up my small ramp and then pushing them down again, driving them here and there. She even raced them down the incline. Both Nona and I held our breath and bit our tongues…it was unspoken, but we both so wanted to show her how to let go of the car at the top of slide…instead we waited, and watched. And then it happened! Her hand slipped and she accidentally let go of the car at the top of the ramp!! It sped down the ramp and boy did it fly! She held very still, surprised, and watched it. Then she retrieved the car and tried it again! Off it went! Again and again, she tried…experimenting with different cars (some more mobile than others).

What a gift to us…to have a window into her learning! And what a gift to her…to give her the time and space…and expectation…of discovery.

What the Educaring Approach tells us to do…to sit back, to allow for discovery (and feelings!), to pause when we want to jump in…that’s hard to do! We know so much and we want to prepare children for the ‘great, unknown future’. But the thing is, the future is unknowable…so rather than trying to fill our children’s heads with all the things we know, why don’t we, instead, allow children to develop a habit of self-learning?

In the conclusion, the researchers said, “Though it wasn’t the purpose of King’s study, it might relieve those stressed parents to know that their child is learning every minute of the day, and relaxing and following their lead is not only more fun, it’s also better for the baby’s development.”