I think that what it’s like to be a baby is it’s like being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had four double espressos, which is a very nice way to feel in some ways but it does mean that you tend to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning crying.” Prof Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley
Professor Alison Gopnik studies how children’s minds work. Our understanding of how children’s minds are organised has changed profoundly over the last few decades. Rather an being a blank slate, or a “booming buzzing confusion”, Gopnik says “In many respects even the youngest babies are smarter even than grown-ups. They think, they make up theories, they try to figure out how the world works, and they pay attention to other people and try to understand things about what’s going on in other people’s minds.” Children have what Gopnik calls an “explore perspective”.[i]
Sometimes, parenting is hard because we have the wrong framework for understanding what a child is doing. And it can be truly frustrating when they are getting into everything, and they want “just one more minute” playing before you have to leave the house.
But what if all of that was REALLY important? Gopnik says it is: “when they are just playing around they are actually doing just the right kinds of things that they need to do to figure out a task.” She says “things that look like bugs of childhood, like the fact that they are impulsive and risk-taking and noisy and variable and unpredictable might turn out to be features from this explore perspective”.
Children are also, in many ways, incredibly smart. Children run hypotheses and test them – as scientists do, effectively using statistics to figure out how the world works. Through a process of experimentation, children “can use probabilities, they can use conditional probabilities, and they can even figure out pretty abstract things about how [a] machine works. Compared with even the most powerful computers, “children with much less data, with much less information, are doing a much better job of thinking up new ways that the world could be, understanding something like that a machine could work in an unusual, strange kind of way.”
Gopnik’s work is informing the next generation of AI, which, like children, will be able to use this ‘explore perspective’, “doing most of their learning just running off by themselves and playing and exploring.” She says “If you wanted to get a system that really had the kind of intelligence of humans, that’s the kind of system you need.”
An open mind
Children’s attention is also very different from adult’s attention in important ways. Adults have honed a kind of intelligence which you need to get things done (exploitation), whereas children tend to favour a kind of intelligence which is interested to find out as much as you can about the world around you (exploration).
“Grown-ups actually are literally blind to the things that they are not paying attention to. …[but] babies and young children [have] a much more distributed way of being in the world…so children are better than adults at remembering something that they haven’t attended to” says Gopnik. “Adult consciousness is like a spotlight, lighting up a particular part of the world, and a baby’s consciousness is more like a lantern. It’s illuminating everything that is going on around it…So [if you ask adults to] remember what colour the card was, they’ll be better. But if there’s something else on the card, you know, there’s a little heart in the corner and you don’t point that out to the adult, they just forget about it, whereas the children will actually remember even the thing that they weren’t paying attention to.”
Let them play
But that marvellous intelligence does not, at a young age, need to be honed and trained. They need the freedom in be curious, exploratory and experimental in “a safe space where they don’t have to worry about outcomes right away”.
And the lessons for adults? It’s the same: “So a university or a science department…really is…like a preschool for grown-ups, it’s a safe place where you can play and you can find things out. Another thing is getting back to not knowing too much. Part of the reason why children can learn so much is because they don’t know very much to begin with. They have much more open minds.”
Hang out with babies
She says “hanging out with babies is a really good idea…if you spend time with a four-year-old, you will get your mind expanded because you can get to participate in that kind of wild, crazy place where nothing is quite what you would have thought in the first place.” So you parents of young children, you are actually expanding your mind!
And if it is hard, in the midst of family life, to allow your child to explore in this way, Special Time might be the answer to your problem. A defined period of time where you lend your child you delight, approval and interest, while they explore the world. At least for a little while – the great thing is that you know Special Time won’t go forever. And afterwards, you can get on with getting out of the house, cooking the dinner, or cleaning up the mess.
And maybe, just maybe, some Special Time for you, so that you, too, can have a safe space where you aren’t concerned with the outcome, to let your own imagination go wild, just for a little while!
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The image above is Pink Baby, by Ryan and Sarah Deed
© 2020 by Madeleine Winter.