Baby Brains

My Chronicle column this month is on how children learn. 

Playtime's Key Role Badly Undervalued, The Chronicle, 4 November 2014

A surprising number of successful people had academic difficulties as children. Albert Einstein struggled to learn to speak. George Washington could not spell. Richard Branson was unable to read.

Yet somehow these people accomplished extraordinary things.

In The Philosophical Baby, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik suggests that the success of people who had atypical childhoods should lead us to rethink our standard view of those critical early years. Instead of viewing small children as defective adults, she suggests that we should see them as highly intelligent creatures, designed to learn how our complex world works.

To use a corporate analogy, children are the research and development division, while adults are the production and marketing division.

It’s pretty amazing to think of all that young brains process. At the beginning, they know nothing about society, about language, about relationships, about right and wrong. Yet within a few years, they absorb and consolidate all of this fundamental information with lightning speed.

But a small child’s brain is not engineered for academic learning. An infant’s immediate goal isn’t learning division or grammar – it’s survival. So rather than combating nature, parents are better to work with it.

That’s why great parenting – and great early childhood programs – create an environment of discovery. Toys matter because children can experiment with the concept of human relationships through their dolls or action figures. Sandpits and baths are important because children can use sand and water to come to terms with physics and states of matter. And playing with others is the best way for them to come to terms with society and their place within it.

Einstein himself stated that his fascination with magnetics came from a compass his father gave him as a small child. He may not have been able to speak, but his mind was brimming with curiosity. Speech can be learnt later, but the attitude that you develop as a child will stay with you throughout your life, and determine your motivations and aspirations.

For all we know about the world, it’s surprising how much we’re still learning about human brains and how they develop. But for parents, educators – and yes, even policymakers – the new research on play-based learning reminds us of just how awesome babies are. They may have a thing or two to learn from us, but there’s a lot we’re learning about them too.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is

Thanks to Wolffe Gaunt for research assistance.

Further reading:

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