All About Babies

Surprise! The Best Way to Help Your Baby Learn Better

surprised baby
Hang on to your Baby Einstein—new research has found that babies learn best from a little unpredictability.

According to a study published today in the journal Science, the element of surprise encourages an infant to want to learn more. That's because babies use the information they're born with to make predictions about the world around them. And instead of getting frustrated when those predictions don't pan out, infants turn the unexpected into a learning experience, which in turns helps them learn better, explains Lisa Feigenson, a cognitive psychologist at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study.

"Our studies show that babies use what they already know about the world to motivate or drive further learning, to figure out what they should learn more about," she says.

Feigenson and co-author Aimee E. Stahl saw this firsthand with 110 pre-verbal 11-month-old subjects. Over the course of four experiments, they showed predictable and unpredictable situations involving various objects. In one scenario, for example, a group watched a ball roll down a ramp until it was stopped by a wall, as expected. Meanwhile, another group saw a ball roll down the ramp, but rather than stop at the wall, it appeared to pass right through it.

Afterward, when babies received new information about the balls, they were more eager to learn about the one that "passed"  through the wall. The infants also interacted more with the objects that defied their expectations -- mouthing, touching, banging, and playing with them in an attempt to understand them better.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you should pull out your razzle-dazzle magician skills during playtime just yet. Researchers point out that more studies are needed to figure out how exactly different ages use the element of surprise to learn. But for right now, I think it's fascinating enough to see what infants are doing with it.

Tell us: What are some of your favorite educational activities you do with your baby?

Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up.Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+

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