Bits of Intelligence (How Sam Befriended the Long-Billed Curlew)

When I was pregnant with Sam, I went to school for a crash-course week on the subject of teaching cool stuff to babies. My parents raised me by these methods, so I had proof that the concepts worked, but I needed to investigate for myself. Now that I have a test subject, I’m trying out some of the ideas, and one of our current favorites is the concept of Bits of Intelligence. Which is just a fancy name for simple flash cards: stacks and stacks of 11×11 cards with large colorful pictures, shown in sets of like objects. Reptiles, mammals, great works of art, U.S. presidents, shapes, musical instruments, types of trees, math equations, you name it: any interesting subject is fair game for Bits. 

(Giant panda) bear with me here. 

Little people are born with this dynamic curiosity and immense brain power, which they are itching to use to the fullest. And their brains are growing at lightning speeds. They are taking in everything. Just as much as they want real stuff to play with, they want real names for things. And, I’ve been finding with Sam, the more complicated the names, the better. Sam gets bored easily with simple stuff (and don’t you?). For instance, he already knows what a dog is. He doesn’t need me to tell him that repeatedly. So, instead, I can give him more precise names: golden retriever, Chinese shar-pei, bull terrier, Rhodesian ridgeback. The more elaborate the name, the bigger he grins. 

Maybe that’s why, when I first showed him a couple of large pictures of sea birds, and I happened to drop the full name “long-billed curlew,” he completely lost it. He grinned from ear to ear. He giggled every time I said the name. And then I put the picture of the semi-ridiculous bird on a shelf in his room, and he pointed to it repeatedly throughout the day. It became a joke that would make him laugh in almost any setting. But it also became a favorite thing. Now, one of the first things he does when I open his curtains in the morning is point across the room to the picture of the long-billed curlew. 

But Sam loves his other cards, too. Right now he’s totally into butterflies (tiger swallowtail!), air vehicles (F-15!), birds of all kinds (common puffin!), sea creatures (sargassum fish!), and dogs (Chinese shar-pei!). I show him the pictures flash-card-style: quickly, ten at a time, with enthusiasm and complete names. There’s no chance for either of us to get bored, because it takes less than 15 seconds to show a set. We keep them in stacks around the house and look at them when we have a couple of free minutes during the day (read: under three minutes). Important note here: the Bits are precise and discrete–a bright, clear picture of one thing. And they’re novel; we keep it new and exciting by swapping out the sets every few weeks. Some of them I purchased here, some are from my childhood (my mom made piles of them when I was little), and some I made by cutting out pictures from books or printing from the web. And the amazing thing is: Sam is only fifteen months old, but he goes nuts for this stuff. The more interesting things I show him throughout the day, the happier–and less likely to get antsy and bored–he is.

It’s not just about learning facts, though facts are a critical starting point for understanding the world. It’s about creating a spark for learning that puts Sam on the alert. The more we learn together, the more I see him on the prowl for new information. He’s constantly hunting, examining the world, looking for things he recognizes, asking about things we haven’t yet named. He pops up in his crib in the morning with his finger pointing (as we like to say: “the finger is out!”), ready to learn, and his greatest limitation is my own lack of patience with explaining things to him. I’m no expert on obscure sea birds or the types of dogs in our neighborhood: believe me. So I am learning with Sam and opening my eyes wider to observe the world myself.

For interested parties, this photo was taken several months ago, pre-haircut, when he still had a curly mullet.
For interested parties, this photo was taken several months ago, pre-haircut, when he still had a curly mullet.

Case in point: The Common Puffin (see above). This colorful little dude appeared in our set of water birds for a couple of days. Then, one morning while eating breakfast, Sam let out a yelp and pointed. I turned and noticed a box of Barbara’s Puffins cereal that Jordan had left on the counter. Sam had recognized the puffin on the box. I started reading the cereal box to him, which included information about puffins and–of all things–a link to a puffin cam. So we spent an extra twenty minutes at the breakfast table watching a webcam of puffins loafing on their ledge in Maine. Guess what Sam’s second favorite water bird is now? 

Suddenly Sam has this new sense of ownership of the world around him, and so do I. When you can name something, happen upon it in your daily life, and recognize it, you feel a sense of connectedness to it. Perhaps even a responsibility to it. Yes, Sam has his material possessions that he lays claim to: his room, his crib, his blocks, his stuffed duck head that he carries around in his teeth by its beak (strange, but true). But now he is taking ownership of a bigger world. A world full of the creations of God and man, a world of people and ideas. It’s not just a grown-up’s world; it belongs to babies, too, even though they’re small. And I believe those are Sam’s things to inherit, just as much as his toys, books, and (potential) college fund are his.

The next time you bump into Sam? Drop the name “long-billed curlew.” He’ll give you a long look followed by a half-grin, as if to say, “You know him, too?” 

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