We are all familiar with the fact that when babies are born they have very little interaction with the world. At first they mainly sleep, drink and cry (when they are hungry or unhappy). As they grow a little bit older, this seems to change and in time they start reacting to the world, their parents and caregivers in more nuanced ways. How does this come about? How do babies and toddlers learn? What are the mechanisms they use to acquire the necessary knowledge required to develop the early skills that they need?
Although we tend to think about infant minds as “clean slates” because they do not possess language skills when they are born, it is interesting to note that learning starts as early as the 32nd month. At this time, fetuses already react differently to stimuli that are repeated often, versus completely new stimuli. So according to research, they already have the ability to differentiate between novelty and what is “normal” even before they are born. In a chapter on Early Childhood Education, Kalicki and König elaborate on the different ways in which babies learn during their early years:
Habituation is the ability to distinguish between what is familiar and what is novel - and as noted above, this is present in fetuses as early as the third trimester. In babies it serves as a very basic way to navigate between what is known and unknown. In a sense it forms the basis for all other forms of learning.
As a baby interacts with the environment, repeating certain activities and receiving particular responses it starts to associate certain actions with specific results. This is known as conditioning. Kalicki and König(2021, 4) remark: “When the baby is interacting with its close reference persons (e.g. parents), the mutual reactions of both interaction partners – e.g. the child looks into the eyes of the adult reference person, this person reacts by making eye contact and smiling, which again the child answers by smiling back – result in acquiring and consolidating new ways of behaviour and action skills.”
Imitation is an extremely important way in which children learn at an early age but also through life. Mirror neurons in the infant’s brain play an important role early on in helping children to mimic facial expressions such as smiling or a sad face. Tied to this is the ability of children to direct their attention to a person or an object early on in their development. They also develop the ability to see what their caretaker is paying attention to, following their gaze. As they and their caretakers focus their attention on the same objects - perhaps a bottle, a plaything or food - it enables them to direct their caretakers’ attention to things that are of interest to themselves. In this interactive process both parent and child start communicating about these objects and this lays the foundation for caretakers to become their earliest teachers.
Play is one of the most important ways in which infants learn. This includes early interactions with things such as rattles where sound is associated with movement, touch and smell of objects, etc. Through their interactions with objects, babies know about the effects of gravitation from a very early age - even though they are obviously unaware of the concept itself. They learn quite early that if you drop something it falls down (rather than just stay there or move upward). As they develop, their play typically follows a specific pattern (2021:5):
“ “Functional play” is … dealing with an object in a functionally correct way, such as when the child puts the receiver of a telephone (or of a toy phone) to its ear. Functional play is acquired by imitation.
Next, at the level of “representative play”, actions are transferred to new situations or persons. For example, the mother or the doll is given the mug for drinking.
During “sequential play”, topically connected actions are imitated,
(F)inally during “symbolic play” any object (such as a toy block) may represent a specific object (such as a car).”
Sleep seems like a passive exercise, but it is one of the most important in terms of consolidating memory and learning. This is true not only for infants but remains true into adulthood. During sleep, the brain has time to strengthen synaptic connections and also to prune unwanted ones. Initially babies tend to sleep for the majority of the day with parents of newborns having to adjust their schedule to that of their babies. As they grow up, they tend to adapt to parental schedules and timelines. In doing so it is important to remember that infants need vastly more sleep than adults (14-17 hours a night). Ensuring a good night's sleep is not only crucial for their mental development but equally so for consolidating their new memories, experiences and learning.