Exquisitely shot and hopeful-without-being-sugary, the film focuses on the day-to-day lives of babies and parents and on the opportunities for learning in even the most mundane activities. “Babies are the best learning machines in the universe,” Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor who has spent decades studying child development, said in the documentary. “They’re the world’s original inventors,” echoed Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
As an adult, just watching a baby who is on the verge of crawling is exhausting. Again and again, he’ll try to rock and wiggle his way forward, tapping into a seemingly endless supply of determination. Give a toddler a spoon and she’ll drop it from her high chair over and over, testing to make sure it clatters each time and watching for her mom to pick it up and hand it back. “There’s this inborn drive for mastery,” said Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. These moments are crucial for development, and parents and the other children and adults who make up a child’s world have an enormous role in creating an environment where children have both the freedom and support to learn.
Consider a father preparing breakfast for his toddler. It’d be easy, faster, certainly, to strap the baby into a high chair and tune out the babble for a few minutes. But give the kid an empty bowl and a spoon and he’ll create a whole imaginary meal alongside his dad, offering sample “tastes.” Ask what kind of sauce he’s making and maybe, like one tyke in the film, he’ll offer up “mango” as a reply.
Children with high self-esteem who feel loved and supported are willing to try new things and to fail a lot in the process, said Andrew Meltzoff, Kuhl’s co-director at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, because they know they’ll be safe. Even preschoolers who shout “no” at tired parents are testing the supportive boundaries of their environments. Where people often suggest that toddlers, given their frenetic tendencies, have trouble paying attention, in reality, they have trouble not paying attention. Everything piques their senses, from the sight of a passing car, to the soft fur of a dog, to the sizzle bacon makes when it hits a hot pan. They need help processing, but also the physical and mental space to take it all in.
Like all people, if babies feel rooted in a community, if they feel a sense of belonging, they are more willing to explore and take risks that help them learn precisely because they know they have someplace and someone who serves as an anchor. The support they feel or don’t feel in the early years influences what they expect from the world around them in the years to come.
The first few years of brain development might be equated to the construction of the frame of a house, said Charles Nelson, who has studied how early experiences impact brain and behavioral development. Just as a house can’t stand without a sturdy frame, a child is unlikely to thrive without a supportive environment in the early years. Kids who spend their babyood in loving and enriching environments are more likely to stay in school and become productive adults. They are likely to be healthier. But when babies don’t have adults who engage with them, pathways in the brain that form a child’s “frame” can disintegrate. Similarly, when babies see bad behavior, say their parents fighting, they are more likely to think that behavior is the appropriate way to resolve a conflict because it’s what they know.