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A sophisticated look at children at play


Not only has David Attenborough done more nature shows than a monkey’s uncle; he can explain in his sophisticated and articulate British manner precisely the way in which he, in evolutionary terms, would be proud to be considered a relative in good standing of any number of monkey and associated species.

My favorite Attenborough moment, however, came during his outstanding and groundbreaking BBC series “The Life of Birds.”

I can’t recall which jungle he was in, or even the continent, for that matter. What I do remember is that he was studying a bird that was genius for mimicry far exceeding the mocking bird’s.

Attenborough first told his audience in so many words that the bird could mimic other animals and sounds like Frank Caliendo doing Bubba, George W. or John Madden.

Just to mess with the audience, I think, Attenborough depressed the button on a motor-drive camera in the presence of this creature, and a moment later, the bird comes out with the same sound. That’s why on Tuesday I was wishing Attenborough and his crew could set up their gear in my daughter’s Springboro kitchen beside the two dogs, Boomer and Barkley. I wanted them not only to pick up the dog hair and let the boys out when the time came, but to film us playing with our grandson, Atticus, then explain in behavioral terms just what was going on.

I imagine it unfolding something like this.

“Fortunately for this child, now 14 months, his mother has chosen an age appropriate toy, stacking rings. It’s a particularly wise choice given the inept, albeit enthusiastic participation of the child’s maternal grandfather.

“What the grandfather does not know is that the simple toy is designed to maximize the child’s learning potential. The toy’s manufacturers have fashioned the single shaft on which the colored circular rings fit so that if all are to be put on the shaft, they must be placed there in a given order.

“Whether because of head trauma experienced during his 59 years or organic limitations in intelligence, Dunderhead, as the crew has come to call the grandfather, has failed to notice the sequence of the ring colors. In order smallest to largest, they are red, orange, yellow, green and blue — an order consistent with the sequence of colors in the human being’s visible light spectrum.

“Nor has Dunderhead pieced together what the child eventually will: That just as the orange ring fits between the red and yellow, the two colors that combine to make it, the green ring sits between the yellow and blue rings, which share a similar relationship.

“The child is fortunate that, despite Dunderhead’s obvious limitations, his grandfather was accepted as a mate by a far more intelligent female capable of providing more directed and useful instruction. Though, as you can see here, she occasionally rolls her eyes in frustration, she is largely and maternally patient with both of them and deeply charmed by the bumbling incompetence of children at play.

“Dunderhead is effective in naming the colors of the rings and, perhaps because of an intellectual parity with the child, has established an emotional link that motivates the child to want to please him by learning the colors.

”Perhaps because of his own recent mastery of the task, Dunderhead is enthusiastic in demonstrating how to position the center hole of each ring over the shaft of the toy so it can slide into its proper place.”

Here there would be a pause in the filming and a kind of obvious resumption of the show.

“Just as our crew were satisfied that Dunderhead’s relationship with the child likely would not prove a hindrance to the latter’s development, the play session took a turn for the worse and, to employ two American sayings, either came off the rails or crashed and burned.

“Rather than continuing to teach the child the desired skills, Dunderhead demonstrate symptoms of evolutionary backsliding when, instead of placing the rings on the shaft of the toy, he began placing them on his own head.

“This distressing development seemed to please the easily distracted child, who moved in Dunderhead’s direction and scaled his thorax to retrieve the ring, only to have the ring fall off and roll across the floor, unleashing chaos.

“When Dunderhead placed a ring on the child’s head, the entire group was amused in a counterproductive fashion. Soon, even the more intelligent female was following the example of her degenerated mate, and the mother, whose focus until that time had been the best interests of her child, fell victim to a more limited form of mass hysteria.

“Just as we were about to stop filming we noticed a final telling symptom of Dunderhead’s regressive behavior. Unlike the other adults in the group, who rose of their own accord, Dunderhead rose to his feet in the same way his grandson does: By using the furniture to pull himself to an upright position, emitting grunting sounds along the way. The crew held out hope the sounds had different causes.

“That final behavior brought to mind a rare citation in the literature of instances in which children as young as 14 months possess an empathic sense for the deficits of those around them that triggers an evolutionary switch prompting them to teach their elders.

“Because our conclusions are preliminary, we shall return in six months for another period of observation.

“This is David Attenborough.”


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