Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Physics of Spoons

There are many processes in life that are so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t realize how complicated they really are. For example, a trained dancer who is asked to do a “triple time step” will perform a complicated series of steps without thinking about each separate part. To her, a triple is essentially a single action. To a dancer with less experience, the process consists of hop, shuffle, step, flap, step, stomp, reverse. To a dancer who is just learning the step, the process is something more like hop on your left foot, brush your right foot back and forth then step back and put your weight on your right foot, brush your left foot forward then step with your weight on it, step back onto your right foot, stomp your left foot on the floor, then do the whole thing all over again in the opposite direction. Put that way, it’s easy to see how complex the sequence is – at least, until you know it so well that you do it without thinking about it.

For a toddler, using a spoon is just as complicated. We adults don’t think twice about using one: you grab the spoon, you scoop some food onto it, you stick it in your mouth. Easy peasy, right? But if you watch a child who’s just learning to use a spoon, you realize that there are a lot of tiny picky details that we don’t even think about.

First of all, where you hold the spoon is very important. If you grab the very end of it, not only does it take a lot of coordination to scoop something onto the bowl of the spoon, but the slightest motion flings whatever is on the bowl up into the air and very far away from your mouth. You need to find that “sweet spot” where you have both strength and control. Short-handled baby spoons make this a little easier to deal with, at least, but it still takes practice to find that perfect balance point.

Next, you have to contend with the whole “angle of attack” thing. Gravity is not in your favor with most orientations. Sure, if we’re talking about cold Cream of Wheat or pudding, something will stick to the spoon no matter what orientation you hold the spoon at. Even something a bit soupier like applesauce or yogurt is pretty forgiving. But dry, unsticky things like peas or rice have an unpleasant habit of jumping right off the spoon unless the bowl is perfectly upright. And I don’t mean just upright when you scoop. It has to stay upright for that whole precarious journey from plate to mouth. That’s asking a lot of a child who six months ago could hardly sit up without assistance.

And then of course, you have the whole scooping action itself. You can’t just randomly jab the spoon into the food and hope to come up with something in the bowl. Unless we’re back to Cream of Wheat or pudding, the random jab maneuver is not likely to meet with a lot of success. The spoon needs to start off deep enough in the pile of food to get a mouthful on it, and it needs to move steadily enough to avoid dislodging its contents during the whole scooping arc. Again, peas and rice are not cooperative with this step of the process, and often result in an empty spoon reaching the mouth.

Impressively, most children do not seem to be particularly frustrated or disappointed by the empty spoon. Ryan, at least, enjoys chewing on the spoon as much as he does chewing on the food, so an empty spoon in the mouth is merely a mid-meal toy break. (It is also useful as a drumstick, thereby leading to another type of mid-meal toy break.) Nor is he bothered by the fact that as much food lands on his shirt and on the table as makes it into his mouth. Occasionally his hunger overtakes his interest in the spoon and he shovels a few mouthfuls in with his hands, but generally he goes back to working with the spoon again pretty quickly.

As I watch his skills develop, and as I watch his surprising patience and diligence in practicing and honing those skills, I am once again amazed at how quickly children go from not even comprehending how something is done to mastering it completely. Within just a few months, Ryan has gone from tottering a few steps to confidently running all over the house. He’s gone from staring uncomprehendingly as us when we talk to him to eagerly responding to verbal requests and recognizing names and objects. He’s gone from sitting back and watching other people show him his toys to actively finding things (toys and non-toys alike) to amuse himself with. And I can only imagine what changes are to come over the next few months. I can hardly wait!

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