Monday, January 07, 2013

Materialism and the Six Month Old Child

In the wake of Harriet's first Christmas, my wife and I were organizing her stuff and realized just how much Baby Material Goods have steadily flowed into our lives over the past six months.  This is not just the necessaries, but lots of extra clothes and toys and stuffed animals, enough that she has barely played with many of them.  Most of this is not things that we ourselves bought, but gifts from friends and relatives---each individually quite appreciated and carefully thought out, but aggregating together into an overload of material goods.

And yet, with all these lovely, carefully-crafted-for-babies, well-thought gifts, do you know what her current three absolute favorite toys are?
  1. The caps of her baby food containers (great for dexterous manipulation practice!)
  2. A plastic clothes hanger (fascinating and challenging geometry)
  3. Our guava tree (strictly limited by her parents, to prevent damage to the tree)
I think this says something very interesting about infant cognition, which shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who has followed the literature or has read popularizations like The Scientist in The Crib.  I didn't see it myself until my daughter rubbed my nose in it, though.  It seems that many modern baby toys are surprisingly uniform in their color (highly saturated) and material properties (from plush/felt to firm plastic, with optional crinkling).  Harriet, however, is often much more interested in ordinary household objects, and we have generally felt that the best way to encourage her active, curious, and playful nature is to help her to get at the things that catch her interest, so far as they are safe.

I think that part of this is her being interested in the things that adults pay more attention to, part of it is because of the "forbidden fruit" aspect of some of them (especially our guava tree).  More than anything else, though, I would guess that our little learning engine just finds the physical properties of these household goods much more interesting.  When you stop and really look at the things around your home, that is unsurprising: many of them are really interesting composite materials.  For example, she really likes blankets, which have this non-linear behavior where they bunch when you push on them, but stretch slightly and then become stiff when you pull on them, not to mention the propagating folds and ripples from the fact that they are a two-dimensional sheet.  Another recent investigation was of a net-covered box of clementine oranges, where you can put your hands under the net and see them through the holes even as the (decidedly non-trivial) manifold constrains your ability to move them.  And her plastic clothes hanger is a decidedly complex geometric shape, which can catch on things and constrain motion in lots of different ways---say, by looping around your arm when you're pushing on the flat base, so that when you push it, it pushes you from behind.

Watching her investigating these things reminds me how much we take our intuitions about these materials for granted, and yet they are often fantastically complex from a physics and materials science perspective.  If I remember correctly, I believe that the physics of fabrics and of foods (so many complex colloids!) still holds quite a number of unsolved scientific problems.  Should I be surprised that our infant finds such complex and tactilely stimulating objects fascinating?

So now we are simplifying with respect to baby toys, and letting our little darling spend more time investigating the ordinary things in her world, which are really not so ordinary.  When she finally figures out crawling, it will be both a blessing and a curse: our next physics investigation is a lowering of the center of gravity of our bookcases, in anticipation of that day...

Post a Comment