Babies Don’t Think

Like many simplistic pronouncements, this claim is both true and woefully incomplete.

It is true if you consider the internal dialog we all carry in our heads. Babies don’t think like that. They don’t have words.

In a series of Radiolab podcasts, psychologist Charles Fernyhough makes the case that infants simply don’t have words, and so they can’t think in that fashion. I’ve listed some references below if you want to dig more deeply into this fascinating area of child development. My intention in this short post is to point out why this applies to play and play-based learning.

If, for the time being, we can accept that thinking requires language, some problems emerge. Looking in the animal world, we see all sorts of very interesting issues. It is well accepted that dogs can learn up to 250 words. You can see them use word on YouTube, pressing buttons to demonstrate their understanding. Koko the gorilla understood some 2,000 sign language words. So, do they think as we do, with a constant voice in their heads?

What about bees? The dance of the worker bees that communicates about nectar sources is only one example of bees “talking” with each other. Surely, they don’t have a constant interior monolog.

The science is inconclusive about the benefits of teaching sign language to babies. I think this because the studies look for the wrong indicators. The image from the article illustrates this mistake eloquently. To illustrate the subject of internal thought, the child is surrounded by letters. This is what we do in “educating” children as well. We don’t think in letters! We think in words. Kids need to be read with, not schooled with flashcards. (Note: I read a book so I can say I “red” it.)

The push for kids learning their letters is constant and strident. Yet, the way babies think is fundamentally different from that of adults. In the article What Are Babies Thinking Before They Start Talking, the authors point out that children hear sounds adults no longer hear as they adapt to a specific language. An example of this when you enter a Japanese restaurant and are greeted with “irasshaimase” shouted out in a high-pitched voice. Westerns take this to mean “Hello.” For the Japanese, it is used to rise above the ambient noise of the restaurant to signal, “Here I am, and I will be happy to serve you.”

Why is understanding how babies’ brains work important?

America is about to embark on yet another attempt to “school” Pre-k children. The push for learning letters and even STEM will become a well-funded tsunami. This will be happening just as China is embracing the Anji Play approach of play-based learning. The administration claims that the new investment will make America more competitive. Should my prediction come to fruition, the exact opposite will happen.

Teacher Tom Hobson is hosting his second Play Summit that starts June 20th and runs through the 25th. The expectation is that something on the order of 100,000 early childhood educators will attend the free sessions. This is a movement to be reckoned with when it comes to setting policy and curriculum.

You should join in as well.

Baby sign language: An evidence-based guide

How Babies Think

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