Explaining Infant Interests

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Infants explore their world continually during their waking hours: pushing, pulling, poking, prodding. Why do some events capture their interests and cause them to make that event occur again and again? It behooves parents and teachers to consider that infants’ interests emanate from profound sources, some built into our specie, some developed from previous experiences. Watch this clip of an infant pushing and pulling and scraping objects attached to a wall. These objects move and also make sounds. We can say more than “the child is learning about cause and effect.” That phrase explains nothing because it is too general, like saying, “The child is learning about life.” We can speculate on the relations among the infant’s body, the shape/location of the object, the ease and reliability of making a particular effect happen again, and so forth. But more than all of this, we should speculate on why the child makes a choice to repeat some effects and not others and why the child, to recreate that effect, uses one strategy rather than another. These speculations move us closer to understanding how children think. Choices are made for reasons, and these reasons define infant intelligence. Let’s begin.

Rather than review her actions in the order they happen, let’s look at certain themes in this child’s play in order to understand her choices. First, there is the spatula that is attached to the wall. It can be pulled forward and released, making it vibrate with a “boing” sort of noise. Watch carefully. Is she trying to pull it off the wall or is she trying to make it vibrate? You can determine this by looking at her fingers. When she hooks them over the edge of the spatula, pulls, and releases we speculate she wants it to vibrate. When she grabs it, holds on as she pushes it back and forth, we speculate she wants to see if she can possess it, that is, detach it.

Similarly, we wonder if she is trying to detach the chime tubes when she lifts one upward or is she trying to make them ring? When an object is hanging loose, the child can feel that looseness when it is grabbed. We know that children, at even a young age, want to know what objects in their immediate environment are separate entities and what are un-detachable parts of larger objects. The wind chime is a bit of a paradox. The tubes feel unattached, since they move independently, but they are joined together by string. We should not necessarily assume that the noise drives her interest. The noise could be coincidental to her intentions to see if she can separate one of the tubes.

We do notice that on many occasions she rotates a spoon (two types) by twisting her wrist. When this is done in the middle of the chime tubes one might speculate that she wants to maximize the chiming sounds. Rotating the spoon creates more hits than a simple strike. This rotation seems to be her preferred way of creating noise with an implement. She also uses it when she rakes the spoon with the looped handle over the surface of a screen screwed to the wall. Since there is not much feeling of the screen’s texture while raking it with the spoon, we speculate that the rasping sound interests her. Not many materials have this characteristic when rubbed, but when such a surface is available, it creates interest and exploration of the effects it affords.

Notice when she looks into the empty basket. Does she see a spoon on the floor that appears through the wire bottom? She reaches into the basket at one point, but realizes that the object is not in the basket. At another time she looks more closely into the basket, sees that it is empty, and then stoops down to pick up the large spoon. It must be a bit confusing to see an object “in the bottom” of a basket, but not really in the basket. On the second occasion she looks more closely and discerns the difference between the illusion and the real.

As a final example of her decision-making, consider how she utilizes the spoon. Sometimes she holds the spoon by the bowl, sometimes by the handle. When she holds the spoon by the bowl, the handle becomes an extension that she can rotate like a baton and that can either rattle the chimes or scrape the surface of the screen. Once she holds the spoon in this orientation she seems to think about it differently than when, on a few occasions, she holds it by the handle. It is true that when a spoon is held by the bowl there is lightness to the movement of the handle. When the spoon is held by the handle, the weight at the end might cause the child to treat it more like a mallet than a pointer. We see this use when she strikes the spatula with the bowl of the spoon. That is the only time she touches the spatula with an object rather than using her bare hand.

There is one piece of the encounter that might be a social reaction between the girl and a boy. The boy is sitting on the floor, reaching up to touch the chime, but he cannot quite reach it. The girl looks directly at the boy and then moves the chime tubes. Is she saying to the boy, “Here, I will make it chime for you.”? What do you think?

In summary, by considering what children repeatedly do, we get a sense of their intentions that informs us of their interests, and from there we wonder why any or all children might find that interesting, such as, “Is this loose object detachable?” or, “Does this apparently smooth surface make a noise when rubbed?” Children’s interests are often mini-paradoxes, and that is why they are interesting.

We recommend that you watch this clip twice, once with the sound turned off. You will see new details when you watch a video without sound. The download folder includes the above comments, plus a full action transcript.