Merrick: Learning Happens Every Second

15 weeksNature has designed young animals to learn at an astonishing rate. They are sifting through all the information presented to them every second and filing away what is relevant, what may be relevant and what proves to be most definitely not. On top of this process relevancy changes from one week to the next.

The information is coming into their filing system through:

What they see and watch ~ many hours of studying people’s patterns, room layouts, garden birds

What they feel ~ through contact of their feet, their fur, how the air moves, sunshine and rain on their fur

What they hear ~ from kettles switching off, TVs, dogs barking, helicopters

What they scent ~ every item has a smell to assess, explore and memorise

What they put in their mouth ~ from toys to turds, it’s all about reading new experiences

At 12 weeks Merrick enjoys sitting in the garden observe life passing by. She used to only do this when I was in the garden, but her confidence and security has developed sufficiently to be able choose to leave me in the kitchen and take up her observation post. The luxury of a British June – doors open all day long. This is the same as every Gordon that has lived in this garden – the highest point with the best view, rich, passing air and sunshine of course. She regularly comes back to check where I am, usually bringing me trophies.

From her observation post she has learned where the Blackbirds are nesting, pigeons have sex at every opportunity (it is Spring) and the dining habits of all wildlife.

She potters around exploring the output from all the fine dining at my feeders, every turd is “smelled”. She has graduated from reading her own output, I can only surmise that there is relevant information stored there. Turds are no longer part of the trophy hoard, but we have yet to venture into the woods and sheep grazed orchard.

Trophies were acquired within a couple of hours of hitting the ground. This began with the bark mulch off the flower beds. Although fenced off for their own protection a small head was able to shop. Not a suitable source of nutrition for a 7 week old child. On the first occasion I swopped this for a tastier item – cooked chicken. On the 43rd occasion she had learned to bring me bark and on the question “swop?” she would go straight to the fridge for her chicken piece. Learning happens every second. That routine took 3 days.

We have matured from bark, to toying with gravel that tosses around the kitchen with great aerodynamics, doesn’t float in water (I even found a piece of gravel in the toilet bowl) and this week’s trophy is turf. Freshly lifted turf.

My available choices varied from punishing the behavior to reinforcing the behaviour and the rainbow in between. There are risks and advantages across the spectrum.

My developing relationship with is my greatest priority – far greater than any trophy, unless the trophy presented a serious health hazard. Punishment was not an option; I really could not care about a kitchen covered in bark mulch, a sofa littered in pebbles and shoes filled with turf. Punishment may also develop secretive trophy hunting where I would not know what she was testing.

Swopping the trophies for chicken increased the behaviour of her bringing me the trophies, but possibly not the behaviour of trophy hunting in the first place. I suspect that is reinforcing by itself, a part of learning. Novel items need to be explored for future usefulness and functionality. This is a developing creativity. Could punishing that inquisitiveness have long reaching effect on her desire to learn? Does the child that continually asks “Why?” questions become disinterested with “just because” non-answers.

By building up this aspect of her naturally curiosity and making sure I become an integral part of that behaviour can be developed in so many different ways in the future. We have an excellent carry back to me, with anything, her thought when she acquires q “new book” is to share it with me. Not her playmate/nanny, me.

I am pushing myself to consider that every action, experience, event, response has a purpose that can be of future use. I may not see it on first occurrence but I am learning to open my mind to the belief that every lesson is there for a reason.

Trophy hunting is about exploration in her environment. In later life we may put this under the label of “environmental enrichment”. At the moment I call it developmental enrichment. Along with her innate curiosity I supply at least 10 new “books” every day.

What does she learning from the activity:

Look at every object for possibilities: can it be eaten? Does it feel good on these sore gums (teeth start changing next week), can I build a nest with it? Does it fly? Does it squeak?

Strawberries are today's new story.
Strawberries are today’s new story.

Pouncing on it with her feet is a future kill-skill. Tossing it into the air is also a kill-skill – for particularly prey that can bite back – rodents. Biting it with different part of her teeth, at different angles are all part of the eating process. Bones just don’t slide down the throat unless rolled around the mouth in a particular way. Exploring new smells and recognising familiar smells. Bark mulch is no longer of much interest, gravel stones seem to be fading. I add to the smell-taste experience with foods. Strawberries and tomatoes are definitely pounce and fling items. Celery is a roll upside down and play with your feet. Crunchy plastic boxes and water bottles. Empty cardboard cartons. Rolls of paper towels, 6 new rolls of paper towels. (Shut the pantry door, was the human-learning here). Orange peel. Cutlery in the dishwasher. (Put the knives in top-down)

These activities are laying down a learning system that begins with observe, explore, scent, taste, carry, chew. Memories and reference points are a key part of life – so we do not keep making the same mistakes and we can learn what is successful. What is fun and what is boring?

At the same time I am part of this learning process, either as a consequence effect or as the originator. Do I have to teach her how to sit? Absolutely not. Am I facilitating her learning? Absolutely.

This IS nature’s classroom. A protected trial and error process that expands all her neural pathways for future learning. Protected from danger and trauma by supervision and safety processes.

Perfect childhood.

But as usual with perfect childhood, lots of cleaning for the grown-ups!


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