The Gift of Time to Watch a Baby Grandchild Learn

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 12.31.53 PMIf you read and write about aging — your own, your parents’ or older adults in general — you often hear people comment that as they get older, they feel that their perspective broadens. Aging adults often describe how, as they age, they have more time to observe, reflect, and  worry less about differences of opinion.

I’ve discovered the gifts of time and observation as a first-time grandparent with my new infant grandson. Although I raised my daughter through the same developmental steps that my grandson is currently passing through, I now have more flexibility to watch the way he learns things. I’m watching a mini-scientist figuring out his life, and I get to observe so many of the incremental learning steps.

Of course, I was aware of the the ways my daughter learned when she was an infant and I was a young mother — but nowadays, I have lots more time because I am no longer responsible for the big things that young parents manage in their lives — work, schools, doctor’s visits, and more. My mother, now 88, tells me that she had the same experience as a grandmother when my daughter was an infant.           

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 4.04.24 PMYears ago in college and graduate school I studied child development and learning. Each of my courses required me to observe children at various ages and stages, including babies in their first year of life. Sometimes I followed kids around at school and other times I trailed along with mothers, watching their infants or children over the course several hours or even days. But in none of these courses — and they were excellent classes that prepared me well for a lifelong career as an educator — did I have extended, opened-ended time to just watch.

What I learned really well back then is that a baby’s brain is amazing — with almost unlimited capacity to figure things out, and with my own child I really did not have the time to celebrate the idea. Now I do.

I am reading a 2001 book, The Scientist in the Crib, by Allison Gopnick, who describes in considerable detail how infants observe, try, fail, persist, learn about themselves, learn about others, acquire language, and much, much more. So now I am watching this play out with my grandson, and not just as an observation here and there, but in chunks of time that allow me to watch and wonder.

@sylviaduckworth via @MindshiftKQED, and https://www.flickr.com/photos/15664662@N02/

@sylviaduckworth via @MindshiftKQED, and https://www.flickr.com/photos/15664662@N02/

A few days ago I came across Silvia Duckworth’s descriptive learning image — an iceberg metaphor. The image depicts the huge amount or learning work that mostly goes unnoticed, especially by adults. Yet this under-the-surface work  contributes mightily to successful learning. As an educator, I am reminded that the amount of effort and time put into learning something is paramount, even more important than mastering a task or concept.

From my grandmother’s perspective this image makes me realize how privileged I am to observe the most intricate details as a baby goes about figuring out things, blissfully unaware of the concept of failure.

So every few weeks, when I am around, I watch my grandson try to think things out, try to do something unsuccessfully, put together more information, observe some more, try again. On and on the process goes — sometimes taking more than month or two or more of my visits — until he figures something out. When he’s in different places, he has different issues to address — kicking a mini-piano keyboard with his feet (close to mastery), bumping up and down in his bouncer (just beginning), babbling at something to discover whether it “babble” back (well into exploration but babbling skills need to grow stronger). He’s great at task switching, focusing on a picture of a bull’s-eye, then hearing something that rattles, moving on to a face where a voice is speaking, and then suddenly turning toward the family dog’s barking.

Lest you think that I am looking at this amazing baby thorough a grandmother’s rose-colored glasses (I am sometimes), go and try observing a baby in your family. We do, as we grow older, possess the gift of time — time to watch, time to listen, and time to share.

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