How Infants and Toddlers Think

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Until 20 years ago, the idea that infants spent any time thinking would have made researchers and parents alike laugh out loud!  Infants were thought to be nothing more than passive “blobs”, unable to do anything except suck, eliminate, and cry.  But, research (measuring such things as visual attention and heart rate) shows that human infants have some amazing capacities.  Babies as young as 6 weeks of age demonstrate a preference for the human face over pictures and geometric patterns.  Month-old infants show preferences for colors (such as red) or reflected lights (which appear as shiny images on the pupil of the eye).

Experiments using timing devices actually show that infants can think about objects through several senses at the same time.  This means they are simultaneously able to look, listen, and touch (or variations of all three), while performing movements and vocalizations that demonstrate an awareness of those actions.

But what exactly are infants thinking?  Before language is acquired and words replace actions, how can parents interpret infant thought?  The answer lies in understanding the difference between infant and adult thinking.  Adults think in conscious comparisons – they organize their thoughts along separate sensory channels.  For example, an adult may look at a book, reflect about the title, ask, “Do I want it?” and not think at all about sounds in the store or the feel of the book cover.

Infants, on the other hand, seem to simultaneously mix and match more than one sensory area.  They may have many, many sense impressions and thoughts about one object, say, a book.  A toddler may pick up a book, mouth it, turn the pages, and point to objects on a page, hundreds of times.  Whereas an adult may never repeat that one activity, an infant may repeat an action endlessly, each time extracting new and useful information from the experience.  Only after the age of 4 or 5 years, do children begin to think along separate sensory pathways – one sense at a time.

All through his life, Albert Einstein was considered “child-like”.  He would spend hours handling books and wooden rods, endlessly repeating the same motions.  It appears that he, like very young children, benefited from using the same objects in repetitive ways.  Toddlers repeat actions not merely in imitation of what they see, but in thoughtful consideration of what they simultaneously see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.

Toddlers have only one mental perspective until they are about 4 years of       age – their own.  They do not share or give up objects easily because they are convinced that, from their perspective, what they see or touch is actually an extension of themselves.  One four year-old boy I know called a toothbrush “ingie” because she,  I think, thought it was part of her finger.  Traveling along the road at night, my four year-old daughter pointed to the moon, and then on the next street, demanded to know how there could be a second moon there, too.  They believe absolutely in what they actually see.

This way of “child-thought” allows, for example, children to keep beliefs about Santa Claus until school-age or longer.  It is perfectly reasonable to a young child that there are duplicates of people, places, and things in this world, and that they are equally “real”.

Research on this concrete way of viewing reality, seems to indicate that infants repeatedly start from scratch to build a mental representation of a person or object every time the person or object appears.  This means infants recognize a face or a nursing bottle by vision or smell, but when it disappears and then is seen again, they need to reinvent the image anew in order to learn more about its meaning.

Adults, on the other hand, recall their images, and forget or dismiss them.  They can imagine them as familiar, not new, according to many attributes.  Adults know size, shape, weight, density, or volume – all at the same time.  Toddlers and preschoolers know objects and events according to only one attribute at a time.  They will sort or classify objects by color, not color and weight.

Even second graders have trouble putting similar shapes together where the thickness of the objects differs (when they are on a flat piece of paper).  Three year-olds may know many colors, but are confused by directions like, “arrange the pink, blue, and orange cubes according to size”.  A three year-old, on the other hand, can put together a 30-piece puzzle of Sesame Street in three minutes flat because the only attributes they deal with is how the puzzle pieces look and fit together.

Infants think and act in the here-and-now.  This is further evidence of the simultaneous nature of early mental development.  Isn’t it remarkable that very young children create a concrete, real, and stable set of images for themselves that stay in place, while other new ones are simultaneously invented?  How impressive that even babies have the capacity to learn independently and voluntarily to trust their mental images?  This trust may be one important key to unlock the mystery of how some learners are such successful learners.

But, all toddlers deserve credit for performing many competent behaviors.  I once asked a 15 month-old what she was thinking about.  Shed straddled a kitchen broom, hopped across the room, and said, “hoasie”.  A 22 month-old girl picked up a sponge, waved it over a play set of dishes, and said, “ma do’em”.  A 13 month-old boy tried to stick a much larger foot into a very small toy truck, and made “zoom-zoom” noises.  Sh-h-h-h-don’t say a word.  These are some of the ways infants really do think!

Ask Dr. Susan