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An Element of Surprise Boosts Babies’ Learning

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Want to raise your cutie’s curiosity quotient? Not a problem, a recent study says. Do the unexpected. Make magic happen.
An Element of Surprise Boosts Babies’ Learning

Doctors have known for years that babies focus longer on new and surprising events than they do on those that are predictable or ordinary. And that makes sense. It’s probably no different than when we—the adults—gawk at a fender bender on a highway or stare in disbelief at a hideous red-carpet dress.

But a study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University indicates babies don’t just notice unexpected occurrences and then forget about them. They actually use surprising events as a starting point for learning, and will investigate, poke at, and test items to explain the unexpected.

Here’s how the study—a series of experiments involving more than 100 almost year-old babies—worked, according to an article in the journal Science.

Researchers, using a bit of, well, trickery, devised a plan to allow babies to observe both ho-hum and improbable happenings, such as a ball rolling down a plank and stopping at a solid wall, as well as a ball magically passing through the barrier.

According to scientists, the newbies—boys and girls—were more interested in learning about the ball with magical powers that passed through the wall—even banging it to see if it was solid.

They were less interested in exploring a ball that stopped at the wall—the one that performed exactly as this tough crowd expected. The upshot: an element of surprise—even one you create for your baby—sparks curiosity and boosts learning.

So what can you do at home or out and about to encourage investigation and make magic happen?

Whip up a homemade jack-in-the-box.

Use a knife or scissors to punch a hole in the bottom of a yogurt container, large plastic cup, or empty milk carton. Insert a pencil, ruler, or stick through the hole. Attach a small, colorful toy, such as a stuffed animal or a finger puppet, to the tip. Put your baby in your lap, and with your free hand pull the stick down to hide the toy, and push it up so it is visible again. Repeat. Give your little one plenty of time to investigate the disappearance.

Play peekaboo with rocks and pinecones.

Head outdoors andset out several natural objects on a blanket or a park bench. One at a time, show your baby each item, and then make it go away by covering it with a small cloth or paper towel. Remove to reveal the object and create a big surprise. It’s a lesson in object permanence, as your baby learns that objects exist even when she can’t see them.

Foster fascination with sight-and-sound discovery bottles.

Fill clear, empty plastic water or soda bottles with items in a variety of sizes, shapes, textures, and colors. Try beans, buttons, water, baby oil, juice, shampoo, rice, sand, or corn kernels, and secure with baby-safe glue. Encourage your cutie to shake each container, watch, listen, and learn as the items inside collide, rattle, or float in the liquid inside the bottle.

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