Friday, September 20, 2013

Paper and Problem-Solving

When I brought down a bag of papers for our youngest infants to explore in their classroom, there was a wide variety of shapes and sizes - crinkly, refracting mylar; fragile tissue paper; smooth butcher paper; long, crumpled diaper table paper; letter-sized drawing paper and watercolor paper. 

While many of the other papers were bigger, more noisy, or more colorful, this last piece - the (relatively) small rectangle of thick watercolor paper - became the most intriguing for me, and for one of the infants, Morgan. 

Morgan first noticed this page after she had spent several minutes grabbing, squeezing, and mouthing some of the diaper table paper. It was easy for her to grab this paper anywhere and hold it up to her face, crinkling it as she needed in order to put her mouth around it. However, on her first attempt to pick up the watercolor paper, Morgan discovered that she could not use the same techniques to pick it up. The paper was so stiff, it did not bend or crumple easily in her hands. In order to pick it up, she had to search out the edges of the paper, grip them, and keep a tight hold as she lifted the paper.

Next came the problem of how to maneuver the paper for tasting. At first, Morgan tried bringing the paper flat up to her face. However, the paper pressed against her face while remaining flat - she could push her mouth against it, but not around it. She couldn't taste and suck on the paper the way she wanted to. Again, she had to work through several trials of rotating the paper and pulling at its edges before she was able to bring a corner to her mouth. Satisfied, Morgan mouthed the paper for a minute, then began to re-examine the paper, searching for a different place to taste and try. After much trial and error, she succeeded in folding the paper and half. Holding the paper closed, she then brought the folded spine of the page to her mouth to tray out. 

Watching Morgan's investigation of this particular paper, I thought of how different an infant's understanding of this page was from an adult's. Although this paper was thicker than most of the paper we adults use in our daily lives, it was more similar in size and appearance to the computer paper we so often print and write than most of the other papers available to the infants that day. Adults' experiences with long strands of diaper paper, big sheets of butcher paper, and swaths of mylar are undoubtedly much more limited than those we have with single sheets of white, 8.5x11 paper. Yet, for Morgan, this particular format required far more manipulation in order for her to answer the series of questions, "How do I hold this? Now how do I pick it up? Now how do I taste it?" than the others did. While the others were bigger, longer, more fluid, and seemingly unwieldy, this rectangle was actually more unwieldy for Morgan. Also, as her teacher, Sarah, pointed out, the piece of paper was quite large from her perspective, and it required her to position it carefully if she wanted the paper low enough to rest her mouth on it. 

In broader terms, Morgan's interaction with this paper seems to me a very physical example of examining a problem from different angles in order to come to a solution. Morgan was literally investigating the many angles and perspectives of the paper, and through this process, she was able to discover the best ways to mouth it the way she wanted to. It also speaks to something that our pedagogista, Kendra, shared at our Center's Parent Night - babies are moving through the cycle of inquiry (asking a question, proposing a theory, testing the theory, revising the question) all of the time!  

Reflecting on Morgan's paper experiment, I am reminded of how important it is to take the time to investigate the many sides of a problem. If you don't turn it over in your mind, you may never fall upon the solution that eludes you at first. If you don't turn a piece of paper over in your hands, you may never have the satisfaction of tasting it for the first time. 

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