Splash! What kids discover in a puddle
By Siu-Lan Tan
It’s spring and about this time each year, a little ritual takes place. After the winter melt, many children encounter their first puddle with the zeal of an explorer discovering a new land.
Indeed, a puddle of water is a microcosm. In it, you find bits of sky, some leaves and a little froth, your own reflection. It is shallow and deep. It records your every step, augments your every move, but eventually leaves no trace that you were ever there. It is both moving and still. A mysterious thing is a puddle, and worth investigating.
After watching hours of YouTube videos of infants and toddlers stomping puddles of different sizes and shapes, I have come up with my list of “Eight Favorite Videos of Kids Discovering Puddles”—and will comment on them briefly as a developmental (child) psychologist. Take a moment to slow down and enjoy this mesmerizing medley, my ode to Spring!
#8 Boy meets first puddle
This toddler does a double-take when he first sees a puddle that has suddenly appeared in the front yard. What is that? He puts his toe in it, gasps, and takes a step back. His mother labels the experience (“Water. Puddle”), encouraging further exploration. He falls into the puddle, and gets back up again. It’s all of life in short review.
#7 Puddle splashing in Cape Breton
Ben, well-equipped in rain-gear, epitomizes Piaget’s portrait of the child as mini-scientist. Discovering a puddle for the first time, he performs repeated “tests” on this new watery universe—just like a scientist would, trying many new things to see the different effects. Piaget referred to these as circular reactions: actions repeated over and over again by the infant because the interesting effects compel the infant to try it again. Through these ‘circular reactions’, he repeatedly explores the shallow borders, touches the water with bare hands, wades into the deep middle, and examines the effects of moving in different pathways and stamping with alternating feet, on the responses of the water. His babbles punctuate his discoveries.
#6 Athena splashing in puddles—Spring 2014
Athena finds a puddle and exclaims “I’ve never seen it before!”. Piaget referred to our earliest kind of intelligence as “sensorimotor” as an infant uses her senses and motor actions to explore, and build a storehouse of knowledge about the physical world. Athena coordinates sight, touch, hearing, and action to examine the new puddle. We witness circular reactions again, this time with very fine variations. She intentionally alters the angle and speed of her foot taps, and is engrossed in observing the effects on the water—the contingencies of her actions, just like a scientist immersed in an experiment.
#5 Charlie discovers puddles
Charlie’s mother gives him time to explore on his own, and then responds to what has seized his interest. Developmental psychologists call this a joint attention episode, as child and parent are focused on the same thing. This’ joint attention episode’ is a natural teaching moment for acquiring new knowledge about the world, as well as developing language and expanding vocabulary—as the child learns all about the shared object of attention from his mother’s running commentary. “You’re in a puddle. Charlie, what does it feel like? Is it hot or cold? Is it wet or dry?”. (Charlie learns about properties of things, and new words, by direct experience). ”Do you see all the ripples you’re making? Just like the rain”. (The focus is now on cause and effect, perhaps a new word ‘ripple’). This is a master class in progress.
#4 Freya’s first puddle
Freya stops stomping puddles intermittently to look up and giggle with pure delight. While adults often dichotomize emotion and intellect, and researchers have focused mainly on the negative effects of emotion on learning, studies are beginning to suggest a link between positive emotions, such as joy and hope, and academic success (see, for example, Reinhard Pekrun). Freya’s gleeful responses show the natural joy that comes with learning, the exhilaration of discovering something new about the world around us.
#3 What if you encounter a mud puddle…when you’re driving your John Deere tractor?
This is an opportunity for Karsen to develop his cognitive skills—problem-solving—with a little advice from his father. Rather than running up to help and rescue the boy, dad instructs him on what to do from a distance. More than just the purely cognitive aspects of problem-solving, Karsen gains a sense of self-efficacy which may boost his ability on future tasks.
#2 Little girl in pink snowsuit discovers ice for the first time
This video has gone viral with almost one million views of the original post. The toddler finds a puddle that has frozen, and experiences ice for the first time. She’s somewhat younger than the other infants, and as she explores the ice patch with her feet and hands, she is constrained by her puffy snowsuit and proportions of her body. At this age, her head is one-fourth of her height (it is 1/8 in the typical adult) and her limbs are still relatively short. The consequences are worth seeing twice.
And the #1 video is… A Kid, a Dog, and a Puddle.
For this one, please read the commentary after watching.
This remarkable video has gone viral and is approaching eight million views. Okay, perhaps it’s not his first puddle but small bodies of water have not lost their luster for this boy. What’s most striking is the uncanny coordination between the boy (Arthur) and his dog (Watson), a sort of interactional synchrony (a matching of emotion and behavior, which allows for a ‘dialogue’ to take place through action). Arthur does not drop the leash carelessly but places it down gently, looking back at Watson twice—and the dog returns his gaze. The dog seems to sense the boy’s intentions and waits patiently for his companion. Arthur is immersed in sensorimotor activity through circular reactions, repeatedly running through the puddle. But he keeps his loyal dog in mind, and reunites quickly with his pal to continue their journey in step together.
As I sifted through scores of videos of infants and children stomping and splashing in puddles, I was reminded that play is a child’s work. The foundations of everything a child needs to learn across the domains—cognitive, emotional, and social—are learned through play.
This is so beautifully illustrated in a moment of curiosity, discovery, and joy of a child, evoked by a small pool of water left after the rain.
Siu-Lan Tan is Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA. She is primary editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press 2013), the first book consolidating the research on the role of music in film, television, video games, and computers. A version of this article also appears on Psychology Today. Siu-Lan Tan also has her own blog, What Shapes Film? Read her previous blog posts.
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Image Credit: Jack in Puddle Photo by Robert Murphy. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Robert Murphy Flickr.