Teaching Babies: Low-Tech Learning

(Last Updated On: November 5, 2019)

Teaching Babies Playful Baby The Print Shop 2 200pxScience Fact: When it comes to teaching babies, low-tech learning can lead to high-tech results.

Last week, we looked at scientific research carried out with long-term couples, specifically people over fifty. This week, the research has to do with the early years of togetherness.

A Story of Love

Our happy couple, call them Buddy and Janine, fall in love, become a tight twosome and form a household. A few years tick by and they decide to have a baby. And being a modern couple, they give the baby a name that works for both sexes, thereby arming the child with charm, strength and sensitivity.

Chris is a lucky child indeed because he/she has parents, and perhaps a nearby grandparent or two, who can provide love and support during those early years. So Buddy and Janine and assorted in-laws try to collaborate on how to help Chris get a good start on life.

At this point, having worn out your patience, we will reach into the research archives and pull out some very interesting work by psychologists studying infants and toddlers.

That STEM Thing Again

The acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) pops in and out of public attention, and has even had its moment of fame on this website. In particular, we pointed out that STEM education is valuable not only for scientists and engineers: many other careers benefit from some degree of technical skill, and even negotiating the hazards of modern life requires much more scientific knowledge than our grandparents ever had.

However, math is famously a closed book to many people, one that they would just rather not open. How does it happen that after years of school and even college, many people really hate to balance their checkbook? Some have accused the high schools, some the middle schools, some have even pointed the finger at the early grades, when children either “get” arithmetic, or they don’t.

[Personal story: In middle school I was exposed to algebra and found it totally incomprehensible. Thanks to Ray Pine, a math teacher who took the time to explain the concepts several different ways, I had one of those “Aha!” moments and got through that impossible-looking barrier.]

To STEM we need to add another important and elusive ability: spatial skills, by which we mean the understanding of shapes and their relationship within space. This is a kind of skill that energizes the talent of an architect, a visual artist, an athlete or a brilliant auto mechanic.

Parents Teaching Babies

Back to research. The quest to understand how children learn is not over, and as we push back to younger years we may someday start recommending that mothers-to-be murmur multiplication tables to their fetuses. However, what we already know is this: you can give your children a tremendous head start in technical literacy before they even walk.

I can hear the protests!
– “No good. My kid is gonna be a race car driver – starlet – wildcatter – lumberjack – ecological crusader and don’t need no stinking math.”
– “How can a person like me who schemed for years to avoid every math course and math test do anything useful for my child in STEM?”

Not to worry. Suppose you were living in 15th-century Florence and your child was Leonardo, someday to be called “da Vinci”? How would you help this budding genius, whose intelligence you (brilliantly) recognized immediately? The logical answer is, that you will teach the child what you know, until you can no longer keep up with him.

Now science has tested this notion and found that teaching babies by low-tech means, by parents with no special skills, may give the kid a tremendous boost in technical literacy even before he or she enters kindergarten.

The Levine Lab

Susan Levine, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, runs a laboratory that studies infant and child development. There are many psychologists doing good research in this field, but this blog is centered on Levine’s work because she has an outstanding body of work, with immediate practical applications that parents can use when teaching babies. Besides, who could resist a lab whose group photo shows the world’s most enthusiastic research staff?

Since the mid-70s Levine and her colleagues have been looking at the learning process in babies and toddlers, as well as the way children recover from brain injury. Levine and her work are featured in a current article by scientific society AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). She’s also featured in a four-minute video posted by her university.

When it comes to teaching babies, two areas have emerged as particularly important: math skills and spatial skills. Since we’re talking about children as young as fourteen months, perhaps we should say “numbers and counting” on the one hand, and “block play and peg puzzles” on the other.

Studying the “Teaching Babies” Process

Levine and her lab have learned a lot about teaching babies and it’s not possible to summarize all their work. However, I’ll describe the beginnings of a typical study so you can see how they go about studying such young children. This study was published in 2013.

The researchers placed an ad in a free parenting magazine and also mailed letter to 5,000 families in the Chicago area. Parents who responded were interviewed over the phone and asked about their income, education, occupation, race, ethnicity, languages spoken in the home, and their child’s gender. Sixty-four families were selected who were representative of the diversity of Chicago’s population as measured by census data. Half the children studied were boys and half were girls.

In this particular study, the researchers visited each home when the child was 26 months old, then every four months until the child reached 46 months, a total of six visits. On each occasion, they videotaped 90 minutes of normal activities by the child and the primary caregiver (most often the mother) without interfering. The activities observed were typically toy play, book reading, and meal or snack time.

You may ask, what about siblings? My wife Nola recalls that when she was six and learning to read, she in turn taught her two-year-old sister, who learned so well that she subsequently skipped kindergarten! So we might well expect older siblings to participate in teaching babies. In this study, the researchers say that occasionally siblings or other adults were present with the child; however, in every case but one, when a child was working a spatial puzzle, it was the child’s mother who participated with the tot.

The psychologists then returned when the child was 54 months old (4½ years) and had the child take a simple test that measures spatial reasoning. A typical part of the test is the following:


The child is told that the two pieces at the bottom can be put together to form one of the figures at the top. Which figure is it? This is an example of a “mental rotation” task.

This all sounds pretty straightforward until we think about the work we would have to undertake to reproduce a study like this. We need to visit sixty-four families scattered over a metropolitan area seven different times. We’ll spend about ten hours with each family, plus travel time, some 640 hours spread over about three years. Think an afternoon once a week, every week.

But collecting the raw data is barely the beginning. We need to review and analyze 576 hours of recorded video – think, if you will, of watching and taking notes on 67 years worth of Big Bang Theory telecasts.

For this study, we need to find instances when a child is playing with a puzzle, meaning pieces that connect to form a larger piece, or pieces that fit a particular spot on a peg board. We need to measure the complexity of the puzzle, the time spent and the amount and type of parent interaction. We also want to record all the times that the parent uses any of the words on a long list of “spatial” terms, such as long, short, corner, left, right, under, upside-down. And since some of the things measured require judgment, we need to cross-check by having more than one person collect the same data. Even if we have an army of graduate students, it’s quite a task. In this case, the “army” consisted of seven research assistants whose contributions are acknowledged in the published study.

But all this is just the chopping of the ingredients for scientific soufflé we are preparing. Then comes analyzing this mountain of data, making sense of it, running statistical tests to test its reliability and communicating it to the world of science.

Teaching Babies Tot Mobile Baby The Print Shop 2

Results: Teaching Babies through Parent-Talk

Studies like this and a related one by Pruden, Levine and Huttenlocher measured how young children learn about shapes and spaces; other studies looked at how they grasp concepts involving numbers. The original articles are fascinating to read, both for their insights into teaching babies and for their explanation of the research methods. However, there are also good summaries in the news media: an AAAS profile of Levine, plus articles at ParentingScience and the National Science Foundation, which sponsored part of the work. A related article in Education.com summarizes additional research and gives some general advice for parents.

Let’s jump forward to the conclusions: what have the researchers learned from their diligent and committed pursuit to the study of how babies learn?

– “Parent-talk” varies a lot – a factor of a hundred. Some parents use as few as five words describing shapes and spaces, while others use as many as 525. Similarly, some parents speak 1,500 words each year to their kids that involve numbers or counting, while other parents may say 93,000. Moreover, in the study discussed above, fully one-half of the children (equally boys and girls) never played with a spatial puzzle during the observation sessions. It’s not often that a scientific study in any field finds differences this immense.

– Income makes a difference. The researchers learned that parents with higher income use more words, use more different words, and are more likely to have children who play with puzzles. This is the sort of analysis that is performed in every competent scientific study, in order to protect against misleading results. For example, suppose that children who play with puzzles are found to develop better spatial skills. That might not be just due to parent-talk: it could be due to the higher family income. Perhaps those kids have better nutrition, or more expensive toys, or more life enrichment (family vacations in Hawaii?). So the researchers need to “control” for income, that is, sort out the data to eliminate any effect that directly correlates with income level.

– Parent-talk is easy for every parent. Talking “numbers” to a toddler is as simple as counting. “Two shoes. One. Two.” “Look, Chris. Do you see three ducks?” Talking shapes and spaces is as easy as normal conversation. Instead of saying, “it’s over there,” the parent can say “it’s on the middle shelf” or “it’s behind the sofa.” As noted above, families vary immensely in the extent to which they do these simple things, to give their young child ways to think about and interact with the world.

– Parent-talk is effective in teaching babies. Children who hear more words about shapes and spaces, and who start using those words themselves, perform much better at spatial reasoning tests at age four-and-a-half. And parents who count for their toddlers, and encourage them to count, wind up with four-year-olds with superior understanding of numbers.

Science Speculation: We want to consider where these results lead, and that takes us into the Speculation section:

– Women in engineering. One of the dilemmas in science education is why there are so few women in the physical sciences and engineering. Many reasons have been given for this disparity, some of which were discussed right here (The Science of Women Scientists, plus Big Bang Theory). But one additional reason could be what parents say and do with boy versus girl babies.

– Pre-K’s effect on lifelong technical savvy. People who like and do well at STEM subjects in college didn’t just wake up one morning with passion for math: they were probably good at math and science in high school. And high school tech talent has been traced back to earlier schooling. It’s quite plausible that someone, somewhere is proving (if they have not already done so) that kids who are good at numbers when they are four also find math and science both accessible and enjoyable all the way through school.

– Causality yet to be proven. One caution is in order: the studies of children described above did not show cause and effect. The interaction of children with their parents was observed and measured but not tinkered with. So although the researchers have made it highly plausible that parental tech-talk produces number and spatial skills, different types of studies will be needed to prove the chain of cause and effect.

– Parent-talk is not just for future scientists! Quite the contrary. It’s not necessary to be a technical genius to gain tremendous value from having more comfort with math, and better spatial visualization. Even a little more math understanding can help people avoid crushing credit card debt, identity theft and overpaying for a loan. Math-friendliness even enhances musical ability. And spatial skills can make for safer drivers, more attractive home décor, better performance in sports, and better overall balance and muscular coordination. Who wouldn’t wish those benefits on their young ‘un?

We end with a proverb that brings an extra morsel of insight:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

The most effective and lasting learning is what we teach ourselves. Teaching babies to count and to understand right and left, and up and down, is giving them the fishing tackle — the basic equipment with which they can feed themselves, both physically and intellectually, for their entire lives.

Have you participated in teaching babies, or at least toddlers? Did you have counting or shape-assembly puzzles when you were young?

Image Credit: “Playful Baby” and “Tot Mobile Baby” from The Print Shop 2 Collection. Not for download or reuse.

Vetting Credit: Many of my readers will be aware of my profound ignorance of child-raising. Therefore, you may be relieved to learn that this essay has been vetted by an actual mother – my wife Nola. Thanks, Nola!

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