Imitation, experimentation, and intuition

How do children learn about the world? This is the issue dominating my mind right now, partly because fourteen-month Izzie is learning at an exponential rate and partly because I’ve ploughed through Sophie’s World over the last few nights and 3000 years of philosophy compressed into 400 pages is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

You can get really deep and complex and ponder the effects of sensory perceptions and experience versus the influence of innate cognition and primitive, pre-verbal mental reasoning. But if I’m not mistaken – which I might be as I haven’t really been sleeping – I’ve been able to reduce the entire field of infant learning down to three key processes:

  • Imitation: watching and copying;
  • Experimentation: fiddling until you’ve figured it out; and
  • Intuition: good god, how the hell did you know to do that?

Imitation is pretty simple. Since Izzie has seen us drink from cans, whenever she comes across one she lifts it to her mouth as though drinking. She does the same thing with deodorant cans, so it’s not a foolproof system, but the idea is right.

The good thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. Watching us press the pointy end of the pen to paper, whenever she gets her hands on a writing implement she now seeks out a newspaper, TV guide, or daddy’s book so that she can make lots of lovely little squiggles. Seeing us use the sponge to wash her face, every time I bath her now she grabs it off me, wets it, and washes my face – usually covering me with water. And when we tell her we’re going out, she grabs our shoes and tries to put them on our feet to help us get ready quicker – or not, as the case invariably is.

On the other hand, the bad thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. So when mummy playfully throws one of the baby’s cuddly toys at me, Izzie discovers that wonderful game called ‘throwing things at daddy’, but instead of limiting herself to soft, light toys, she thinks it’s all fair – books, coasters, wooden blocks, the kinds of things that really hurt when they connect with your shin bone, or elbow, or forehead. Likewise, because she sees daddy turn on his Xbox by pressing the on/off button on the front and hears a terribly interesting ‘beep’, at random times she’ll toddle over and press it – even if daddy has been playing a game for half an hour and hasn’t saved it! And because she sees Ozzie the dog chasing the cat around the lounge, for the last few days she’s been terrorising Korea (in case you’re wondering, she’s a rescue cat and that’s the name we’re stuck with).

Experimentation is a slightly more cerebral process. It’s all about taking an object and figuring out its intrinsic physical qualities. Whenever Izzie gets a new toy she starts out by bashing it against things (how heavy is it? What noise does it make?), proceeds to bite it (is it food? What does it taste like?), and then turns it all round and decides which is the most enjoyable way of interacting with it. So she’s gradually discovered that it’s more rewarding to press the keys on the piano thing we got her from a car boot sale (plinky-plonky style) than slap it or slobber all over it – although I kind of wish she hadn’t. And she’s discovered that if she pulls the oven door on her toy kitchen really hard, she can yank it off and then throw it at daddy – thus combining experimentation and imitation.

She’s also been using experimentation to discover how, if something doesn’t work one way, another way might produce a better outcome. Hitting her xylophone with the end of the beater that the string was attached to made a muffled thudding sound; now she uses the proper end and smacks the crap out of those metal bars with the volume and melody of a pneumatic drill. Drawing on paper with marker is all well and good, but drawing on her legs and/or dress gets a much more exciting reaction. And if she wants me to read her a book, she brings it to me and puts it on my lap, and if I don’t read it, she hits me with it, which is equally as fun.

You see, Izzie also experiments by varying causes to provoke multiple effects – a long-winded way of saying she tries various methods to manipulate her parents to get what she wants. Screaming, crying, stamping her feet, balling her fists – and if daddy doesn’t give in, she goes to mummy and repeats the process, and vice versa. She likes to point, to say ‘uh’ to indicate ‘that’, and failing that, to reach for it and clamber up on the furniture and move things about until she either gets it or gets given an equally attractive alternative. And if you’re walking in a direction she doesn’t want to go, she’s discovered that instead of resisting, screaming or crying, she can just go limp and sink down to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, refusing to budge until you turn the other way, whereupon she springs into life like Popeye with spinach in his belly. Too clever for her own good, that one.

Which brings us to the final learning process: intuition. Or rather, instead of a learning process it’s more like a remembering process because I have no freaking idea how to explain some of Izzie’s behaviours beyond the possibility that past lives exist. These are the things she does that she has not witnessed so can’t be imitating, hasn’t experimented with, and by rights should not have the reasoning power or cognition to achieve.

Like a few weeks back when I drank a Coke from a glass bottle and left it with a few dregs in the bottom on my father-in-law’s lawn. A few minutes later, Izzie totters over, picks up the bottle, sees it has some left in it, carries it over to the table, pours it into a glass, puts the bottle on the table top, picks up the glass, knocks back the Coke in a single gulp, puts the glass back on the table and toddles off again. If there weren’t other witnesses, I would have doubted the evidence of my own eyes. We’re not the kind of people who pour drinks from bottles into glasses – we drink it from the bottle or else drink cans – so where did that come from?

Similarly, I was bathing her the other day when she picked up her mum’s lady razor from the side of the bath, and despite never having seen or touched one before, proceeded to shave my forearm. Had it not had the plastic cover over the blade, I would have an arm as bald as an Olympic swimmer’s. The thing is, holding a wiggly-handled lady razor is quite a skill for a baby, especially getting it the right way up and to then run it down my arm multiple times in perfect imitation of a person shaving – where did that come from?

My mum took her to a toy shop and after looking around for a few minutes, Izzie took a box off the shelf, lay it on the floor, and then pressed it repeatedly with her foot. So far, so normal, except that inside the box was a mat you put on the floor then press with your foot to make noises – so how the hell did she know to do that?

And the other day we gave her a yellow duster, and what did she do with it? Yup. Started dusting the surfaces. I can guarantee she’s never seen us do that before!

So here is my treatise on child learning: imitation, experimentation, intuition…unless my daughter is the reincarnation of a Coke-drinking, music-mat-playing barber who likes cleaning, in which case I’m not sure I can generalise using her as my case study.

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