February Education Spotlight

The Complex Lives of Babies
By Emily Deruy

The idea that new babies are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge
of the world around them doesn’t sound unreasonable. With their unfocused
eyes and wrinkly skin, tiny humans sometimes look more like amoebas than
complex beings.

Yet scientists have built a body of evidence, particularly over the last three
decades, that suggests this is patently untrue. “When kids are born, they’re
already little scientists exploring the world,” said the filmmaker Estela Renner
via a video conference from Brazil before a recent screening of her new documentary
The Beginning of Life (streaming on Netflix) at the World Bank in
Washington, D.C.

That’s something Renner, a Brazilian mother of three, discovered as she spoke
with early-childhood experts and parents in nine countries around the world
about the impact a child’s environment in the first few years of life has on not
only her physical development, but her cognitive, social, and emotional development,
too. “I didn’t know that kids were not blank slates,” she said. “It
changed the way I look at babies.” If more people recognized that fact, the way
communities and policymakers think about and invest in the early years of life
might be different.

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.