The Pattern-Seeking Brain in Action

In my previous post, I mentioned how young children (infants!) explore math concepts without being propped in front of flash cards and told that this is “math” and these are “numbers”. (Don’t you feel like it all goes wrong when we’re told it’s math?) Granted, there comes a time for written equations and the black and white of right or wrong answers, but one of the truly wonderful things about young brains is that they’re inherently wired to actively explore these concepts before they acquire our adult hang-ups and obsessions. I feel that the longer and more fully we can embrace this kind of hands-on learning, the more wildly successful our children will be.

There is a quote by Janet Gonzalez-Mena that beautifully encapsulates my experience as an infant/toddler educarer.

“The moment I decided to follow instead of lead, I discovered the joys of becoming part of a small child’s world.”

I’m at my very best in my job when I’m able to be still and observe. This is also when I’m most at peace with my work and most satisfied. This is when I’m reminded that my profession is a gift — to be able to see children at these remarkable stages of development from this unique perspective of both caregiver and observer is a privilege and a joy, wrapped up in a science I passionately adore.

Not long ago I had the opportunity, in the middle of a morning of absolute chaos, to observe one of my young toddlers actively exploring math concepts completely on his own. Over the course of this particular morning, our infants had used and discarded several teethers as they wriggled, writhed, and fussed through the hours after drop-off. Long a proponent of keeping things in order, this toddler (seventeen months old) marched around the room collecting the teethers from the floor. I smiled to myself, observing him, delighting in his orderly nature. What he did next took my breath away: he carried the teethers (four of them) to the counter and dumped them there. He looked at the pile, then laid them out in a row. He then lifted and shifted them, creating a pattern.


There are a couple of ways to interpret the pattern he seemed to create. One would be by size: large, small, large, small.The other would be by character (the two larger teethers featured pictures of Elmo in the center of them, and he made a point of turning the pictures face-up): Elmo, non-Elmo, Elmo, non-Elmo. His work did not end there. Observing his array, he removed his pacifier from his mouth and sought to place it in the row. First he placed it to one side. Then he picked it up and centered it, two teethers to either side. This added a level of complexity to the pattern and revealed a sophisticated thought process that I — arguably his biggest fan — hadn’t imagined.

Toddlers are so breathtakingly intelligent.

Weeks later, I find myself returning to this experience for further reflection and marvel. I recall my time working with four and five year olds, gently but actively teaching them to recognize and construct patterns. I recall their struggles. I regret my own failings as a “teacher” back then: could I have been more in tune with the innate abilities they too had possessed as toddlers? Could I have more sensitively tapped into that to further their learning? Do we all somehow lose our innate pattern-seeking as we grow? Had these connections already been “pruned” from the brains of my preschoolers, thanks to lack of use? Perhaps. Perhaps their pattern-seeking had dimmed, replaced by skills more relevant to their GameBoys.

We know that babies come into the world seeking and recognizing patterns. Their brains are primed for cause and effect discoveries: when I cry, Mom comes. When I cry, Mom comes. When I cry, Mom comes. How long does this kind of thinking remain a priority? I’m not certain (although I am almost certain that someone, somewhere, could be studying that very topic right now), but what I am reminded of is that it is my gift to follow this particular toddler’s lead and see what can happen when he’s given the opportunity to pursue this avenue of active learning a little bit further. This could be just a sneak peek at the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Or just another child who has the chance to be empowered by, not frightened of, math concepts.

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One thought on “The Pattern-Seeking Brain in Action

  1. […] brains seek patterns. Young children are especially tuned in to this process, making them so positively responsive to […]

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