The Gift of Recognition

A few weeks ago, Sam and I spent a day at the new Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Let me save the discussion of what it's like to bring a two year old to a modern art museum for another time (for now, suffice it to say, it's great - toddlers are the ultimate surrealists - but it's a bit like when Dalí brought his pet ocelot to fancy restaurants) and skip to my point: I noticed something interesting that day at the museum. Sam most enjoyed pieces that included things he recognized. Oldenburg's Geometric Apple Core, for instance. Or the Alexander Calder exhibit of huge mobiles (particularly this one. I mean, kids get mobiles. They probably spent the first two years of their lives staring up at one from their crib.). The three Matisse paintings (we've looked at a lot of Matisse at home; we're basically best friends with the guy). Or anything with the color orange in it. Or any piece of art containing squares, circles, triangles, or--Sam's favorite--pentagons.

So that day at the museum got me thinking: there's something a little bit magical about recognition. What's more, it's in our power to encourage this magic in tiny kids. And the more we do, the more curious our kids will be, and the less mundane our days with them will be. 

Back to pentagons, though. You might be wondering: how does your two year old know what a pentagon is? (I hope you're sufficiently impressed!) Well, I introduced him to pentagons, and I've drawn them for him a few times. Now he spots them everywhere, along with a variety of other polygons. And do you know what his current favorite word is? Dodecahedron. (Say that five times fast. Now with a toddler lisp.)

But before you write me off as a tiger mother, let me say this: I don't cram my nearly-three-year-old in a chair and force-feed him high school geometry. I just offer the facts. Casually. Like it's no big deal. "Want a pretzel?" "We're going to Target." "Hey, there's an equilateral triangle." Because the truth is, it's not a big deal. A dodecahedron, for instance, is just a thing. Just another shape, like a square, except with a WAY funnier name. (And no one hesitates to tell their kids what a square is, so why isn't it socially acceptable to have conversations about other polygons with your toddler in the grocery line?) These are the building blocks of Sam's world, and, despite being considered just a lowly toddler in this society, he's got an equal share in it, and an equally capable brain. Why should the fact that a stop sign is an octagon be a difficult piece of knowledge that one acquires through rote memorization at a desk in a room with fluorescent lights? Why wait until Sam is six, or eight, or twelve, to start telling him this stuff? Sure, there will be plenty left him to learn at a desk in school, but these days, while we're just running around town together or eating lunch at our counter, I want to start giving him this information, as a normal part of daily life. My working hypothesis is that anything I introduce Sam to while he's tiny will come just a little easier to him later. And that the more I tell him about the world now, the more he'll engage with it. As I've been testing it out, here are a few things I've discovered while exploring my theories and observing my test subject: 

1) Recognition gives us a frame of reference. Consider this: a new baby enters the world with virtually no knowledge of the world around him. He's got a lot of instincts and reflexes, and that's about it. His knowledge probably starts with the faces and voices of his parents, the smell of food, the sounds in his room. Then, someone helps him along to the next level of awareness by talking to him, showing his around his house, telling him about the objects around him. The more things and sounds he recognizes, the more his world comes into focus. I think grownups are a little like this, too, when we encounter unfamiliar situations or environments. Every time I take some time to stargaze, it takes me time to acclimate. My first thought is usually "What am I looking at?" And then my eyes adjust and I'm able to find points of reference: the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia. Once the big constellations start to take shape in your vision, you can spot the smaller ones more easily. The whole huge sky becomes a little more understandable. 

Obviously this concept applies to kids in terms of obvious things, like shapes or colors or faces. But I think I can take it to the next level to help Sam to engage with more subtle things. When he was 18 months old, we were planning a trip to Seattle, and I did an experiment: I showed Sam tons of pictures of the Space Needle for a few weeks leading up to the trip. I wanted to see if looking for and spotting that landmark would help him enjoy exploring the city more. And guess what? He was constantly on the hunt for the Space Needle, everywhere we went. When we caught a glimpse of it, he went nuts with happiness. It worked, and he was a whole lot less grumpy about being dragged around a new city far away from home.

2) Recognition gives us a sense of ownership. When I was little, I had a plastic slide viewer with vintage slides of various National Parks. I'd spend hours poring over the shots of Yosemite, Carlsbad Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion. Now, as I finally get to experience these places in person, one of the first things that pops into my mind when I first see them is, "I KNOW this place." Those slides awakened a fascination and curiosity for the national parks that I've never been able to shake. When I see them, I feel like they're mine. I want them to thrive. I want to show them to other people. I want to get to know them better. Once you're acquainted with a thing, word, or idea, when you next encounter it, you're encountering an old friend. 

I think this works in other areas of life, too. For example, when you've heard a lot about someone, you're more curious to meet them. When Sam is meeting new people, he's usually a lot friendlier and more tuned in if I've shown him a picture of them in advance. Otherwise, he doesn't really care about them (unless they're male and have a beard, in which case he's instantly interested). iPhones are great for this. I'll pull up a Facebook pic and say, "Hey, Sam, this is our friend so-and-so. She's coming over today." Well, when she shows up at our door, he's way more excited and ready to engage.

3) Recognition is a key to increased enjoyment and curiosity.  I think that for babies and toddlers, the whole world is a game of Where's Waldo, but with words and objects, shapes and sounds. Sam is always on the lookout for things he knows, and he's delighted when he finds them. I think this is true for all kids. When Sam sees something he recognizes, like a type of butterfly, or a word on a sign, or a type of car, he'll usually let out an audible, spontaneous chuckle. He's stumbled upon something in the grownup world that he knows! And that thing is his very own inside joke (remember the long-billed curlew?). It's when we draw connections between things that we really start to engage with them.

There's this super cool airplane museum near our house. On our first visit, we walked in, and the first thing we saw was a replica of the Wright Brothers' plane hanging from the ceiling. Sam cried out, "FLYER ONE!" and just about jumped up and down with glee. We have a set of flash cards with obscure air vehicles, which we look at quite often, and Flyer 1 was one of them. Now, in the educational trajectory of a two year old, it really doesn't matter whether or not they can correctly identify the Montgolfier Brothers' Balloon. That particular fact isn't important. But here's the real value that I see teaching tiny kids these things: 1) They'll start to realize that the world is really, really, really big (regardless of how much or as little as we travel), and 2) When they do encounter that obscure object, their brains will light up like a Christmas tree with recognition, and they'll be TICKLED PINK. And guess what? They'll just want to learn more stuff. 

The more you recognize, the more you look. The more you look, the more you notice. While you're looking, you will notice things you don't recognize, so you'll inquire about them, and then later you'll recognize them somewhere else. The cycle repeats, and before you know it, you've become a more curious person, with more points of connection to the world around you.

And so I want to introduce Sam to as many things as possible, as often as possible. Everyday stuff, weird stuff, college-level stuff, math stuff, nature stuff, art stuff. Tell him what all the street signs say. Think of the biggest words I know, tell him what they mean, and use them in sentences. Write equations for him on index cards at breakfast. Let him handle all my fabrics and skeins of yarn. Show him pictures of epic faraway places on my phone at lunch. Tell him about the buttons on my DSLR and explain the functions. Put on Wagner in the car and tell him (an edited version of) the Ring Cycle story. Listen to Mozart in the bath. Read great literature over dinner. And you know what? I have a feeling this habit will increase my own curiosity about the world...and make breakfast more interesting.