... by letting them play with (safe!) everyday household items.
Last evening, while all of us adults sat around the living room/dining room engaged with our own reading/working, my daughter let my grandson Phin (18 months) have the salad spinner on the living room floor, as his "Ama", one of his grandmothers, had showed him how to use it earlier. In addition to the three parts: the bowl, the spinning strainer bowl, and the top with the large push plunger to make it spin. Phin very elegantly found he could push the plunger down more easily with one foot when he stands next to it while holding onto a chair to keep his balance. Then he added, one piece at a time: a jar of diaper cream (with the lid on), a Frisbee, which just fit in the top of the bowl, and finally a 3-4” wooden shaker-rattle. He spent 20 - 30 minutes putting these things in the bowl in different combinations and trying to see if he could spin any one of them, any combination of them, or all of them. His experiment showed that he couldn’t (neither could you or I, if we put the smaller pieces in before the spinner bowl). It was inspiring to watch him examine each piece, examine the bowl and other pieces, and trying almost every possible combination at every possible angle, and really look at what was happening and what wasn't. And to notice that he never tried to spin anything without putting the inner spinning bowl shows he knew that the connection of the lid to that inner bowl was essential to the spinning, as was having the top seated properly on the outer bowl.
Imagine how many neural connections were built during this process: that some things cause others to move, some don't, finger-hand-arm-eye coordination, balance, and repeating-movement patterns: ones that would help him understand how so many other things work in the real world and build his balance, confidence, and strength!
And how different it would have been if one of us had gotten up to show him how to put those things in the spinner!
Read my post on Facebook re Alison Gopnik’s NYT article (Our kids don’t need to be taught in order to learn..)
Q: Why was he willing to spend so much time with something apparently (to adults) easy to spin and boring? That is, this was not some toy or set of blocks, supposedly designed to keep children's interest. My thoughts on this:
First, he had seen us use these items frequently, though not exactly in ways that he tried. But the fact that he could put them together, whether the spinner worked or not, made his activity very experimental. (What "seems obvious" to us adults about how these items do not work together is not due to our superior intelligence, but to our own past "experimenting" and use of the items.) Children want to find out how things work, and the most effective way (which also develops eye-hand coordination, spatial acuity, and finer motor skills) is by experimenting. So, second, there was a huge developmental opportunity in his (all children's) innate motivation.
My last point here is that there has been a detrimental belief (perpetrated by various sources) that young children have short attention spans. Not so. Children learn very fast, and so get bored very quickly when they have little say in what and how they are allowed to see and do things. Being "taught" is a two- or three-dimensional experience, though children "adapt" when they have no choice - as most of us adults did. Boredom is a bigger problem for more children than is struggling to keep up (though it looks similar - a struggle - to keep paying attention). Phin's interacting physically and autonomously with the salad spinner is hugely multi-dimensional, exercising not only all the senses and developing sensory acuities, developing co-ordination and thinking/manipulating purposeful actions, but also is essential for developing a trust of self and responsible self-determination. The earlier value of my wife letting Phin watch and handle as much as she does when cooking lead to his exploring on his own how these utensils worked, providing 20 -30 minutes of development, the value of the sum of which later in his life is immeasurable. The value for parents? Sit back and read. Being encouraging when no encouragement is necessary is annoying - even to young children!
[to see a video of a couple of minutes of his activity, request access to "Salad Spinner video" here.]