Saturday, 22 October 2011

How do Babies Learn?

So which is it? Are babies mindless beings who only eat, sleep and cry? Or are they little geniuses, ready for academic pursuits? The truth is probably half way between the two. There is no doubt that the brain of a baby is like a sponge which eagerly soaks up information and that brain plasticity in young babies is at it's peak. What we must also realise however is that young babies need a secure, loving environment in order to utilise this inherent neuroplasticity.

In evolutionary terms, babies have not changed a great deal over the last 50,000 years. However, what we know about them has changed a great deal.

Astute observers of human development have always believed that the early years were critical to developing potential and this view is supported by evidence that children exposed to highly enriched environments develop bigger, superior brains, whilst children who are exposed to impoverished environments have smaller, less well developed brains. This is a view which began as early as the Greek philosopher Aristotle and was developed in the 11th century by the Persian philosopher, Ibn Sina (known as "Avicenna" in the West. He argued that the "human intellect at birth is rather like a tabula rasa, a pure potentiality that is actualised through education and experience of the world and consequently ' “comes to know" '

While this information is exciting and hopeful, especially to the parents of children whose development has been adversely affected by brain injury or some ather retarding factor, it also poses a danger, as some professionals and parents think it means we should apply intensive and exhaustive programmes of stimulation to teaching both brain injured and 'well' children in order to maximise their potential. Enter the billion-dollar baby industrial complex to sell us videos and flash cards to make our babies "smarter and the clinics offering eight to ten hour day – long programmes of developmental stimulation to children with developmental problems.

But a number of researchers have found clear evidence that some promotion of early learning tasks can actually interfere with later learning. Not only that, but that ensuring that the child has plenty of 'downtime' actually improves the learning process. This recent study by Ellenbogen et al demonstrates that relational memory -- the ability to make logical "big picture" inferences from disparate pieces of information, and an essential part of learning - is dependent on taking plenty of breaks and even more important, getting a good night's sleep. I believe that this is where other rehabilitation centres have it worng and where Snowdrop have it right in relation to the programmes of developmental stimulation we provide for brain injured children.

So here's the dilemma: We know we're supposed to be doing something to take advantage of the early years of brain development, but what? The answers to this query may be simpler than we think. They require only the simplest understanding of how babies operate.

First, babies are wired for relationships. To paraphrase the great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, everything children need to know comes to them through relationships which provide interaction with more skilled partners, relationships that mean something to them personally. From birth, they use their emerging skills to seek out those they can learn to trust. They flourish when they know they are secure. They fall apart and under-perform when they are stressed. Their behaviour is organised and meaningful. They communicate clearly when stressed if we will but pay attention to their cues. When their needs are met, they snuggle, coo and sleep. When they feel overwhelmed, they fuss, turn red and lose motor coordination.

So babies need to be cared for by their parents and grandparents and other caregivers in a way that "listens" to what they tell us with their behaviour. Responsive care-giving gives children evidence that their needs matter. It teaches them to respect themselves and others.

They need to be cared for by people who are emotionally available to them. They need to see a smile reflect their own and a look of concern in someone's face when they cry. When they make attempts at language, they need to be heard and responded to by someone who really wants to know what they have to say. They need opportunities to play with other children and figure out what works in human interaction. They need some freedom to choose their own play activities and interact with others in their own comfortable style.

When children are confident in their safety and acceptance, they can relax and learn. According to Bjorklund and other evolutionary psychologists, learning is inhibited by fear and anxiety but facilitated by security and the opportunity to choose. Children are born learning as a natural response to their interesting world. They only need our interest and support. We adults serve as guides to help them find their way.

Anyone wanting more information on Snowdrop's work should email, or go to our website at


Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

Snowdrop said...

No thanks. You wouldn't want me; - trust me!