Listening and Learning from Birth

Listening and Learning from Birth

Foundations of natural learning begin at birth or even before. I am not talking about making the womb a classroom and reciting lessons for the benefit of the baby. Just as we feel that baby listens to everything going on, when we listen to baby we develop communication skills- both ours and baby’s. Many parents talk to baby during pregnancy. Mothers speak of tuning in closely to baby during labour and birth.

After birth, everyone tunes in. Long lost songs fill the air. What about these calls and responses from early days and years has to do with learning?

When we listen to children we model listening. It sounds obvious yet so often we see parents “telling” children to listen but not themselves listening. Children learn to listen by being listened to.

Listening to Infants

Adults can eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom without ever speaking to anyone. Not so for infants who need someone to feed them, hold them, breathe near them. And change them or better yet take them to relieve themselves. While most of the world still practices diaper-free hygiene and learns to listen to babies signal for this need just like all other needs, the rapid mass conversion to diapers is leading many to forget that babies actually do communicate hygiene needs from infancy. Fortunately many people are reviving this lost language and practicing what in the first world is known as “Elimination Communication.”

Elimination Communication

Compare a diaper to a curriculum: the lighter it is the more scope for the child to communicate. Disposable diapers or heavy plastic-covered cloth diapers, promoted for “not leaking” stand as a barrier to communication, like a rigid curriculum. To consider a diaper successful if it passes the “leak-proof” test is like a child considered successful based on passing an exam. And the more “leak-proof” is the diaper one uses, the longer it takes for the child to learn to go to potty on his or her own. In fact, babies are born with this awareness; constant use of the diaper makes them tune out and have to unlearn diaper-use and “learn” or “train” to recognize their own elimination needs again later.

Babies who are listened to, with respect to hygiene or any other aspect of living, will develop trust and communication skills more readily.

Just as diaper free hygiene helps a child stay in tune with her or his body, so many other aspects of natural family living such as natural birth, breastfeeding, unrushed transition to solid foods, sleep-sharing and respect for the body’s immune system help to draw an arc of holistic learning.

Precious Preliterate Years

When school started at 5 or 6 years of age and playschool was just that, then one left the early years free for learning that was more or less self-paced and self-directed. As it was natural to learn to walk and talk without instruction or monitoring, children had the opportunity to be exposed to letter, number, color, shape and other “pre-school” concepts as they occur in the surroundings without subjecting them to lessons and reviews and gold stars. Mixed age groups are more conducive for exploring social skills such as helping and taking turns that pre-schools claim to develop. Moreover, it is in these precious pre-literate, pre-numerate years that we experience the world as a whole, not squeezed into words, divided into parts and counted, compared, compiled. Why cut them short? Why not leave these years free for children to learn vital skills like eating and sleeping, at their own pace and with fewer demands on their time?

Leaving the early childhood years free of school schedules not only frees their minds from the impact of an external curriculum, but frees their time to learn life skills that may otherwise be shortchanged.

Freedom from Preconceived Notions

As deserving of our respect is the freedom the untutored mind has to explore and create knowledge as if they are the first to do so – as if our language, numbers, color schemes did not even exist.

Why do we make efforts to teach little kids to identify red, yellow and blue? Primary for whom? for what? In Telugu it is not easy to distinguish pink, orange and red, because all are called red. In fact we can’t even say “red” but have to say “redlike.” There are on the other hand very specific colours named “eggplant,” “peacock’s neck” or “parrot” and heaven help you if you call these violet or blue or green (esp if you are in the matching centre!) Some years ago I participated in an experiment for a study on “categorization of color*” and joined a listserv called colorcat that was dedicated to this research.

So even if we know that by age 5 or 6 or 7 children will have to accept the colours in standard crayon boxes why not leave the years before that free for them to perceive light and color in various ways without us dictating names for these things. I say the same for letters and numbers. Treasure those precious pre-literate and pre-numerical years without rushing to count, classify, compile and categorize. Though the languages* of infancy and early childhood may not survive for long, the opportunity to discover and develop and discard concepts in those years, the sense of being a principal investigator rather than passive recipient of concepts others have tried and found true, can serve one throughout life. Let us stand on our feet before we stand on the shoulders of giants. (*Wade Davis on endangered cultures gives us a glimpse of what values might survive along with non-dominant languages and concepts.)

Our daughter shared some memorable observations around age 2 about the number 0 and about white as a color. Yes, she currently uses our decimal number system and no longer objects to seeing colors the way we do. But we also got a glimpse of the questions our prevailing system raised for her and thought momentarily about what it would be like to see it her way. Alas, that moment may no longer be with us but the chance she had to protest the way zero was valued or the role of the white crayon is something that kindled in us respect for her imagination and analysis