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Rubber Ducky

Julia loves baths. She is almost six months old now and often has two to four baths each day. In part, this is because she is just starting to eat solid foods and every feeding requires a bath because she will have sweet potatoes under her neck, in her hair, on her eyelashes and covering her little protruding belly. In part, she gets many baths because she enjoys them and this is sometimes the last resort of whoever is watching her when she is crying because she is tired, teething or just plain crabby.
 There is a developmental benefit to bathing, too, and I think it is no accident that most well-run preschool and early childhood programs include "water play" as a frequent activity. Let's look at Piaget's theory regarding cognitive development and Julia in the bathtub.

Piaget says that during infancy, in the first stage of cognitive development, children learn through their senses and physical exploration of the environment.  The bathtub is a great place for a variety of sensations and physical play. First of all, she is immersed in warm water – a unique sensation compared to the rest of the day – she can splash the water with her hands and feet, roll over in it and kick around in it. Sometimes we put bubbles in it and sometimes not, so this gives her variety in stimulation, both in what she is looking at and feels on her skin (because the bubbles make her more slippery). Then there are the toys in the bathtub. You may as well know that Julia, being her father's first and only child, born when he was forty-one years old, has acquired more than her fair share of toys. She has two yellow rubber ducks and twelve, plastic ones. She also has three boats of various colors, a dozen blocks, a set of plastic floating animals, a bath puppet and a long plastic tube filled with balls and gears and other things that move when water runs through it. Most or all of these go into the bathtub. These provide her with a variety of sensory experiences

  • Visual: they are all different shapes and colors for her to see
  • Tactile: they are different shapes and textures for her to feel ­ square, rounded, plastic, rubber and terrycloth, smooth and ridged,
  • Auditory: her rubber duck's squeak, the sound of the water splashing, her puppet "talking" (okay, the puppet doesn't actually talk, really it's us pretending that itâs talking!) and her father singing the rubber ducky song (on-key, surprisingly).

[Click here for a totally optional link to the rubber ducky web site, from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences children's pages. It even includes the complete lyrics to "The Rubber Ducky Song" as well as that lesser-known Sesame Street tune "You've Gotta Put Down the Ducky (If You Wanna Play the Saxophone)". Is the web great or what?]

REFLEXES - This was the first of Piaget's six substages. Julia demonstrates this in her bath somewhat, blinking (when the water gets in her eyes) and, on those very rare occasions when she wiggles out of our hands, the Moro reflex. At almost six months, we expect to see the Moro reflex disappear soon. There is also a swimming reflex, when a neonate is submerged in water, he or she is supposed to engage in a swimming motion and hold his/her breath. I have not tested this reflex because I am overprotective and would feel very bad if she got water in her lungs and started crying. Since this reflex is supposed to disappear around five months, she probably doesn't have it any more.

PRIMARY CIRCULAR REACTIONS. This is the second of six substages to the sensorimotor stage that Piaget identified. Piaget says that the first interest of infants is in their own bodies. They will repeat actions over and over (hence the term circular) which involve their bodies. This includes putting their thumb in their mouth and taking it out again, putting their feet in their mouth, waving their hands, etc. Julia, like most babies, is in LOVE with her feet, they are constantly going in her mouth, so this is a great opportunity to wash them in preparation for the next time they meet her mouth – say in five seconds. She likes to lay on her bath in the bathtub and put her feet in her mouth and suck on her toes. She makes gurgling noises while she does this and sucks on them LOUDLY as if these are the most delicious, nutritious things she can imagine (it's slightly gross). A second example of primary circular reactions is the noises she makes. She likes to lay in the bathtub and make the same noise over and over –"bababababababa" or "mamamamama".

SECONDARY CIRCULAR REACTIONS. This is the third of Piagetâs substages and it involves objects outside of one's own body using simple, repetitive motions. Julia does a lot of this, too. She likes to sit up and slap the water over and over to hear (and feel) a splash. She also likes to push her toys around the bathtub. The water makes it very much easier to make things move, she just has to barely touch her toys.

COORDINATION OF SECONDARY SCHEMES: Julia is just entering the next substage, as such, she is a little ahead of the norm for this substage, which is eight to twelve months. In this substage, the infant begins to coordinate two different actions they have learned. Julia LOVES to put things in her mouth, and it is comical to watch her trying to grab her toys and then pull them toward her mouth so she can suck on them. She hasn't quite got down the coordination of these two schemes, though, and she will over and over grab a toy and start pulling it toward her mouth only to drop it in the water. Of course, we adults realize that to put something in your mouth you have to grasp it, move your arm toward your mouth while the entire time still holding on to the object - but come on, give her a break, she is not even six months old yet! She will figure it all out soon.

She hasn't gotten to the last two substages yet, but here they are anyway...

TERTIARY CIRCULAR REACTIONS: At this stage, she will do the same things over and over but with variation. For example, when my oldest daughter was a baby, she used to think that throwing things was a great game. She would throw everything - her toys, one by one, spoons, bowls, washcloths, napkins, you name it. We would go to restaurants with patios outdoors (fortunately much more common in California than in North Dakota) so they could hose the area down after we left because it would surely need it. She delighted in this game and would very deliberately hold an object high over her head or lower than the tray on her high chair just to see what would happen if she dropped things from different heights. The circular in the definition (as in round and round, over and over again) was certainly her. Sometimes I would get tired of this game and just leave her toys on the floor so I could eat a bite. Passersby always stopped, picked up the toys, put them back on her highchair tray and gave me a disapproving glare for being such a neglectful mother as not to notice that her toys were on the floor. Of course, they had seldom walked on more than three feet before Maria had thrown the toys off again.

MENTAL REPRESENTATION: The last substage of the sensorimotor period, when a child develops the ability to carry a mental representation in his or her brain, is still a way off. According to Piaget, this ability appears between eighteen and twenty-four months. (There is a lot more about this substage on the next page). Like many other psychologists, I question Piaget's age ranges for cognitive development. For example, while Julia does not show object permanence as defined by Piaget (and also on the next page, be patient....) she does do certain things which seem to indicate she has SOME mental image of her environment. For example, just yesterday I bought her a new crib set - the whole bit with the crib bumpers, quilt, sheets, etc. (I told you she was getting more than her share of the earth's resources.) While she was sleeping on the bed, I changed her crib and then put her in it. So, the bumbers, quilt, etc which had had teddy bears on it for the last few months now had Spot (the dog from the children's books). When she woke up, she cried for a very brief time, but then, rather than continuing to cry to be picked up, she rolled over on her stomach and crawled to the side of the crib. She ran her hands over the picture of Spot on that side, and then crawled to the end of the crib and stared at the picture of Spot there for a while. To me, this seemed to show that she had SOME idea that there was previously something else on the crib and that this was a new thing.

A very, very sad and true story about circular reactions

A few years ago, a young mother wanted to go to the North Dakota state fair in Minot, but she couldn't find a babysitter. As a last resort, she left her infant in the crib surrounded by several bottles. The social worker who told me the story did not say whether the mother  was intending to return the same day or not, but she did actually return two days later to find the baby dead and all of the bottles on the floor around the crib. If you knew something about secondary and tertiary circular reactions, you might have predicted this, i.e., that very soon after the mother left, the baby might throw one bottle on the floor and then another and another.


NEXT arrow Click here to go on to the next page for more on cognitive development.

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