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Experiments to do with your baby (theatlantic.com)
239 points by jawns on Dec 6, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 73 comments

I'm the author of the book ("Experimenting With Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid" http://www.experimentingwithbabies.com).

I'm a big HN fan and would be happy to answer any questions!

This sounds like an awesome book, and I would probably have loved to have it when my kids were infants. I pointed a few friends at it.

My big experiment with my first born was trying to teach her to count starting with 0 instead of 1. I attempted it for a few months, but ultimately stopped because everyone else around her was counting the typical way and it seemed like it might be confusing to her.. I admit it was a bit embarrassing for me when doing so in the presence of non-geeks.

I'll also go ahead and share a funny anecdote and hope it doesn't come back to haunt her in a decade.. :) We noticed a common side effect of her getting the hiccups whenever we changed her diaper. One day I jokingly said that the first time she ever came home from a date with the hiccups, her boyfriend had better start running.

My parents taught me to count on my fingers with binary, which lets you get to 31 on one hand, and 1023 on two. I've found that to be a small thing of huge value when doing simple counting tasks, such as counting syllables or words in a short text, where you can't just keep a count in your head.

    ELDERLY LADY: How old are you, little boy?
    YOU: (middle finger)
    YOU: It's 4 in binary.
    ELDERLY LADY: Oh, for a second, I thought you ...
    YOU: (two middle fingers)
    YOU: Oh, sorry, I was just guessing your age.

Anyone fascinated by this will find this wikipedia article convenient to get going!


Just don't stop at 132 when people are around!

I just tried it and I have the problem that it's very difficult for me to extend only my ring finger. I vaguely remember someone saying that this is because some fraction of the population don't have fully independent 4th and 5th fingers...

I hadn't heard about anyone having naturally occurring fourth and fifth fingers without the linkage. I do remember reading a story about a piano player who devised a set of stretches intended to develop the independence of his ring fingers but it ended up damaging the (tendons|ligaments|<insert medical term here>) and he could no longer effectively play the piano.

I never thought of that, it's really cool. But I'm not able to show 8 or 9... :(

How have I never thought of this? I am using this from now on...

Thanks for sharing the book with your friends!

I'm intrigued by your 0 vs. 1 experiment. I wonder if there is something fundamentally different in how we learn the concept of ordinal numbers (1, 2, 3) versus, say, integers (-1, 0, 1). Usually we teach numbers by counting physical objects, and perhaps it takes a little longer to understand the concept of zero if you're used to counting objects.

I couldn't hope to determine if the early training had anything to do with it or just the overall attention to early education, but I will say that she developed an affinity for math at a young age and even in preschool tended to be interested in the more advanced concepts of abstract math rather than simple counting of objects.

I did teach both my children to count on their fingers using the pattern taught by ASL. I've noticed that sometimes her friends look at her oddly when she holds up her index, middle, and thumb for the number three, and obviously, they have no clue that holding up the index, middle, and ring fingers might mean either six or three to her depending on to whom she is talking.

I introduced both my children to an awesome game when they were just in kindergarten: http://www.dragonboxapp.com/ it teaches basic algebraic concepts cloaked in the guise of a fun puzzle game.

I find the finger counting (3 with thumb, index, and middle finger) interesting. Here in Asia that could mean 8.

I was first taught to count starting from the index finger as well:

fist = 0

index = 1

index, middle = 2

index, middle, ring = 3

index, middle, ring, pinky = 4

index, middle, ring, pinky, thumb = 5

thumb = 6

thumb, index = 7

thumb, index, middle = 8

thumb, index, middle, ring = 9

(I am from Thailand, but I think this is how counting is taught in America as well?)

I thought this was universal until I went to Singapore. I was quite intrigued that in Singapore a "thumb" is not considered a number but rather a signal for "good" and instead they used thumb + pinky for 6. (The rest seems to be the same.)

Not sure why I brought that up, but I guess I had not realized that there was a difference in even the way we counted all around the world until that point.

EDIT: Formatting

Typically, kids in the USA are taught 1 - 5 the way you describe, but not taught anything further with a single hand. If they want to count to ten, they use both hands in the same manner.

There are a few other fancy ways including even binary which could let you count up to 1024 if you could keep it all in your head. :)

The ASL (American Sign Language) method I mentioned in the parent is described here: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/counting-on-numbers-in...

I annoyed my teachers in elementary school demonstrating binary finger counting to 1024 when they were insisting that students stop finger counting because "you could only count to 10"

I was a precocious little shit.

Yeah, my dad taught me to count on my hands in binary when I was young. I tried explaining it to others but that usually broke down when I reached four...

My hand cannot do 9 the way you describe. My pinky is too stubborn.

It sounds like (unsurprisingly) Singapore uses the same system used here in Hong Kong. I'm not sure if the same system is used in mainland China.

fist = 0 index = 1 index, middle = 2 index, middle, ring = 3 index, middle, ring, pinky = 4 index, middle, ring, pinky, thumb splayed = 5 thumb, pinky = 6 index, middle, ring, pinky, thumb all held strait with their pads touching, looking a bit like a shadow puppet of a bird's head = 7 thumb, index = 8 just the index finger, bent in half = 9

Yes, the same system is used in mainland China.

Apart from 4 and 5, you can kind of see the link between the written form of the number and the hand signal: 1, 2, 3: obvious because 一二三 6: the thumb and pinky make up the bottom part of the character 六 7: If you look at your own right hand upside-down when making the gesture, the bird's head points in the same direction as the 七 8: Your thumb and index finger are the two lines in 八 9: Your index finger is the second stroke in 九

I don't know whether this is coincidental, or even just my imagination...

I taught my daughter starting with fist, so zero was natural.

Then, when we started playing board games there was an issue playing games like "Game of Goose" because she started counting with 1 in the occupied space. We "fixed" that starting with 0.

> I've noticed that sometimes her friends look at her oddly when she holds up her index, middle, and thumb for the number three,

Hmm interesting. I have been trying something different as well. I have been counting with fingers with my kid using different fingers every time. The idea is that it doesn't matter to associate a finger with a number as long as the correct number of fingers is up. Like say most people start with the thumb and move left or right. Sometimes I start with the ring finger.

Counting is also fun in general. We count steps, count trees when we drive. I try to never make it about teaching but more about fun.

Thanks for the link, the game seems awesome !!

I always tell my daughter to not forget the number zero when counting and that it is important, without it we can't have the number 10, or 20...and so on...etc

0 is important, but it's not true that without it we can't have the number 10.

In written form, for example, we can represent 10 and 20 without 0 easily, as the 0 is just a syntactic placeholder:

- Roman Numerals: X and XX

- Scientific Notation: 1e1 and 2e1

- Base 16: a and 14

- Set theory: {{{{{{{{{{}}}}}}}}}} and {{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}

But more importantly, the existence of the number 10 is independent of it's representation. Mathematically, the existence of the natural numbers depends on a "unit" (which we often represent with 1) and a method for incrementing or inducing the subsequent number.[1]

0 ensures the existence of groups [2], and by extension many important mathematical structures. I get your point though, and I wonder what would be an accurate, but still relatable, reason for a young person to grasp the importance the number 0?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axiom_of_infinity

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_(mathematics)

>what would be an accurate, but still relatable, reason for a young person to grasp the importance the number 0?

If you have one cookie, and you eat it, how many cookies do you now have?

I asked my nephew and this was the answer I got back:

1 cookie, in my belly. (And then he demanded a cookie.)

try asking him 'if you have one cookie, and I eat it, how many cookies do you have?'

I think everyone understands the concept of "nothing" or "no cookie" vs "a cookie", just as babies (and, say, birds [1]) have a concept of quantity and even discrete quantity at small values.

I can understand that I have no cookie without counting from the number 0. But why is it important to label nothing, to give it a name and symbol and define its properties?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_intelligence#Counting

Well, easy, you just apply group theory ;-) and clearly you have the correct amount such that if you keeping eating this amount of cookies, no matter how many cookies you start with, you end up the same number [Identity]

The Romans (and many others) seemed to manage.

How some babies like Alan Kay in his childhood acquire exceptional talent of reading in such a small age. The wiki tells that he had read lofty number of books before he was three? Is it a talent or something to do with nurturing?

I'm not sure of Alan Kay's childhood, but in my case I was reading at a 6th grade level (IIRC) when I entered kindergarten, and was reading and writing stories from a very young age. I can't speak to the nature side of things, but I can speak to the nurture:

Every day from the time I was born, my mother would spend hours reading to me; not just "See Spot Run" level books, but things like the Bruce Coville "Magic Shop" series. Instead of just letting it stay there, she'd ask me questions about what she was reading, and then we'd make up our own stories that riffed on the same concepts/characters/settings. When going to bed, she wouldn't read to me, but rather we would make up our own stories using a theme that she'd select, which forced me to think through things at a higher level.

The one part I wish I understood better was how it went from oral to written, both in terms of reading and writing stories; I remember well her reading to me, but not how it switched to me reading. Regardless, I imagine that the nurture side of things had a huge, huge impact on my abilities, so: thanks mom!

[Edit: Linked her this thread, so I'll update with her thoughts whenever she sees it, if she doesn't comment herself.]

That's awesome! One thing I've started to do with my older son, who'll be 4 in a month, is helping him journal about his day. About half an hour before he goes up to bed, we sit down at the table and he dictates a journal entry about his day. If he says something ungrammatical, like "I go'ed to the library," I'll say aloud, "I went to the library" as I write it down, so he picks up on it. I've noticed, over the past six months or so that we've been doing it, that he's gotten better at putting events in a sequence, and I think it's helping to spark his imagination, too, because sometimes he'll tell me fanciful things about his day that I know he didn't actually do.

That sounds really neat, I think I will start doing that with my daughter. I am away from home a lot so it might be something that we can do over the phone as our thing.

What a great idea.

If anyone is curious, a few random thoughts from my mom on this:

It was important that you understood how to get from point a to b. You were always good at being able to put things together easily. Sequencing and figuring out how a character came to be are elements that are often overlooked. Knowing that 1 story could be many with just a small twist is what the Coville books were so good at. Another thing is that your father and I never talked down to you and allowed you to come to your own conclusions.

My wife started with 3-letter rhyming words. Cat, Bat, Hat. Lists of them. Once the 3-year-old could recognize the 1st letter she changed it up. Cot, Not, Hot.

A couple of weeks of this and they were reading. We continued to read to them but just for fun, for the theatre of it. With voices and acting out, hilarious with young kids.

My youngest got tired of all that and would grab the book and go to his room to read it alone. He was also reading Wizard of Oz when he entered Kindergarten.

Funny, teachers are often highly resistant to admitting any kid is at a different level. They even went so far as to bring in a 'reading expert' to test him. Showed him some stupid picture with a 6-word poem and read it to him, asked him what it 'meant'. Nothing of course. So he 'was reading at a normal 5-year-old level'.

Did they ever just ask him to read a book? No. Why not? What is the deal with teachers? Is it inconvenient to have kids at different levels so they go into denial? Do they feel threatened?

This isn't an isolated case. Its been played out in my experience with my kid and others of my friends. I've been buttonholed by experienced teachers and given a tirade on the evils of teaching kids on your own.

I like teachers, respect them. But they often have a chip on their shoulders, and its holding kids back.

I think you owe her a big set of flowers and chocolates on Mothers Day!

I don't have a source, but I remember reading that a child observing a parent reading (As opposed to a parent reading to a child) was a better indicator of whether the child would be a reader.

But this is heresy without a source.

Wow, you have an exceptional parent, that's all I can say.

I'm pretty sure that in the case of highly exceptional children, it's a combination of both nature and nurture, but with nurture taking a backseat to nature.

But I actually tried to stay away from topics like this in "Experimenting With Babies," because, well, how many readers are going to be able to experiment on a kid who can read fluently before age 3?

However, if you're interested in learning more about the topic, you might find this resource interesting:


There are better sources than that on precocity in young children. I'll have to find some references for you. (They may not be found in time for the edit window of this comment, so feel free to write me off-forum if you would like those.)

In general, early reading is less remarkable (in English) than people think it is, because with the right materials[1] English can be seen by a young learner as a rather consistent writing system that is not insuperably hard to decode.

That said, my four homeschooled children, the first two of whom are strongly bilingual in Chinese and English, having lived in Taiwan in early childhood, were early but not strikingly precocious readers, and all my children were learning a lot of other things besides reading in their early childhood, of which chess was perhaps more conspicuously precocious than reading. Earliness is less important than long-term solid development of skill, and it sounds like the parents of some of the HN participants here who have personally observed examples of very precocious reading were well aware of that.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Teach-Your-Child-Read-Minutes-ebook/dp...



A friend of my sons comes from a house definitely not focussed on teaching reading and writing at a young age. Yet their 5 year old son is streets ahead of his age for reading and writing. He is naturally gifted at it. None of his siblings share this trait or even an interest.

Another friend of mine found out their son was a reader when he started kindergarten. He was always 'reading' the books in the house, but his parents thought he had just memorised them from being ready. In fact his kindergarten teachers gave him new stuff to read and he lapped it up. He was reading the first Harry Potter book by the second grade. My friend actually got frustrated because his son didn't want to do father/son things, but preferred to read.

Some kids are gifted readers, just like some are gifted at hitting a ball with a bat. The important thing is (a) spend extra time and attention if it is clear they do have a gift and (b) don't feel like your child is somehow behind if there is a kid like this in their class.

Science tells us that it's not either/or, it's the interaction between our genes and the environment.

My intuition (based on anecdotes and observations, not hard data) is that nature provides a starting point, and perhaps an ultimate cap or speed limit to growth, but nurture provides the year over year progress. The most successful people I know nailed the nurture (or hard work) part of the equation. They were all at least smart, but very few were the smartest in the room at a young age. Over time they've appeared smarter and smarter to their surrounding audience.

I have twins. It's nature, shaped by nurture.

Identical? I've observed fraternal twins whose parents try to raise them 100% identical, but have wound up very similar in values but different in abilities and personality.

Nature vs nurture is a fun topic. The above topic reminded me how I learned to read. No where near as advanced as they, but nightly my dad would read to me and often the same book, the little prince. I was four or younger. I noticed that the words correlated with what is said, and I began seeking forward for shorter two and three letter words and was excited when I acurately picked out the right upcoming words. The words got bigger and I realized the link between letters and sounds. Exposure is important. Related somewhat to the article: my first memory is around 18 months old and involved knowing a good guy toy was to be punched and I found it odd that you would "hurt" the good guy.

I should ask my parents. According to my baby diary, I was reading on my own at 1.5 years, and have been reading nonstop ever since. :)

This looks like an awesome read!

Both my sister and my partner's sister are expecting shortly. I was happy to place an order for two copies through Amazon. I'm sure it will bring about some chuckles on Christmas day.

I really like the research and takeaway sections in the examples on your website, with practical guidance based on scientific research.

Will it blend? :D No? No will it blend? :(

They don't let me have babies of my own because I would do all sorts of psychological experiments on them.

When I was a Camp Director I used to construct "lies" over the course of a week that would lead kids to the wrong conclusion.

Just with in the earshot of campers I'd say things to the counselors like "I think Kahn is back on the camp again"

And in the Animal Lodge we had a huge empty tank that said "Kahn: Rare Aquatic Gargantuan Boa Constrictor" with some facts about the fact that they could grow to over 150 feet in length, and they eat mostly bear for food.

I'd drop other "hints" like "You don't have to worry about Bears in the woods, not since Kahn got out..." and if anyone asked I'd just blow off the questions about Kahn, "Oh, nevermind just a camp pet that got out one day"

When the wind would blow through the tall grass the counselors would hurry the kids to an area where the grass was shorter. And we'd say "Camper count" and count that we had everybody, then sigh, "Kahn never ceases to scare the daylights out of me"

Towards the end of the week campers were convinced there was a conspiracy to keep the giant snake a secret. It kept them from wandering out at night, or sneaking off on their own.

Worked far better than any amount of threats of discipline could.

Fun camp tradition! But wandering at night, sneaking out with a buddy, is one of the great delights of camp. So no I'm not sure that is a good goal.

How exciting to sneak out with a buddy at night, looking for Kahn! They'd remember that for a lifetime.

The writing had me laughing and my interest piqued.

"What is Henry thinking? Why is he looking at me like that? Drink your milk, Henry."

"His intellect is like that of a sentient grapefruit."

Edit: A word

Friendly note: It's piqued, not peaked. Used to make the same mistake myself. Pique means: "stimulate (interest or curiosity)."

To say that your interest peaked, means the article went down hill from that point on :P

And yeah, I read that joke in one of Ze Frank's voices: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFzz6EZmkq8)

There needs to be some kind of corrective list. "Commonly misspelled words online". I've noticed increasing prevalence of certain misspellings on the internet, and I fear they will reach critical mass and start building momentum.

- wreak/wreck

- weary/wary

- piqued/peaked

You may enjoy Paul Brians Common Errors in English Usage http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/

Oh my god, I imagined it and it exists! Today is a good day.

My favorite is "wreckless", as in "wreckless driving". One should hope that all driving is wreckless.

Ah, Thanks for the enlightenment! :}

Most apposite for me - two days ago I read the "How Old is the Shepherd" article, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6848166, and thought "I must try that on my kids".

Looks like I'm going to need to have another child to get the most out of this thread, bit costly.

Very interesting book. Will check it out for sure.

I have a 4.5 yrs old who can understand 4 languages and converse in three of them. Credit goes to my wife for conversing with him like an adult in all these languages. I don't know why, but we never did any baby talk with him, and based on his teachers' comments he is way ahead of his peers in language/communication skills. My wife started teaching him reading English about 3 months ago. Now he can practically read at 2nd grade level. We don't push him to read, but he loves reading his story books. I hope your book offers couple of more things that we can try to increase my kid's happiness.

I was surprised with the innate memory of spiders experiment so I look for some alternative explanations [1] as well as a link the original paper [2]. It seems that the study is not conclusive.

[1]: http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/2007/10/03/do-infants-h...

[2]: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

If you're interested in the subject, here's another related study, which was published in 2010:

"And along came a spider: An attentional bias for the detection of spiders in young children and adults"


"Preschoolers and adults were asked to find the single spider picture among an array of eight mushrooms or cockroaches or the reverse. Both children and adults detected the presence of spiders more rapidly than both categories of distracter stimuli."

There's also evidence that primates have an innate visual response to snakes - http://www.pnas.org/content/110/47/19000

You may also find this helpful: http://lesswrong.com/lw/28r/ (The first paragraph is all I'm citing here.)

Even if we do innately "recognize" spiders, it is still not going to come with all the semantic content that an adult has when they look at a spider. It's something simpler. (But still amazing in its own way.)

Fantastic idea. Looks like a lot of fun.

I remember taking a psych course on early childhood development in university, and thinking how much fun it would be to have a baby and actually try some of these experiments.

As a new parent, though, I find I have a lot less time than I would have hoped to go trolling through old textbooks for experiments that won't actually just wreck my kid. (Old-school science is kind of awesome in how it disregards that kind of thing)

Anyway, thanks for putting this together. Definitely going to pick up a copy.

I'm glad the book has piqued your interest and hope you enjoy it.

By the way, in addition to the 50 science projects, the book also contains a bunch of sidebars, including several I've labeled "Don't Try This At Home," which describe some of the bizarre (and sometimes cruel) old-school science experiments that have been conducted on children.

They range from the weird but generally harmless (simulating entrapment in a refrigerator) to the scar-you-for-life (the infamous Monster Study).

Wrecking kids is hard to do, as long as you are paying attention to them you're doing pretty good. Better than the average in fact.

I just bought this and I'm excited to experiment!

Testing babies for "theory of mind" is my favorite. http://www.livescience.com/10924-7-month-babies-show-awarene...

The humor in this article is so subtle.

"Why is Henry eating lint off the floor? Science would tell us that there is one correct answer."

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