Tuesday, October 18, 2011

If At First You Don't Succeed: The Importance of Failure in Child Development

I love watching children develop. So much so that I'm pretty sure one of the main reasons I entered this profession is this: it gives me the chance to watch children discover the world, over and over and over again. Since I am a mom, I get to see this process unfold in front of me at home, too.  And  honestly, it is a beautiful thing to behold.

The other day, my baby (um, toddler) girl was playing with blocks. I started to try to help her and then I stopped. Instead of interfering, I simply sat back and watched. Her patience astounded me (it's a trait that I can only wish to acquire) and her inquisitiveness delighted me (I am a mama, after all!).

After observing for a bit, my speech-therapist brain kicked in and I began to realize what I was watching.  At 24 months, children are natural explorers- they are trying hard to figure out the world  around them and find out how they fit in.  They are starting to develop mental models, which means they are starting to hold representations of objects (and eventually ideas) in their head. And yet, their mental models aren't quite fully established, and, as a result, they end up doing a lot of trial and error to see how things fit together. As they try things out, they begin to develop more accurate mental models.  Eventually, they develop an understanding of how things go together without having to try those things out first.

Back to the blocks. My daughter was clearly working on developing a mental model of the blocks. She knew what she wanted (a fully stacked tower) and she knew when her tower wasn't quite working out as she wanted. She also seemed to know that when the tower wasn't working out, she had to remove a block or two.  And yet, at just 26 months, she doesn't yet have the cognitive powers to analyze the situation fully in her head-- instead, she must rely on the trial and error process of removing and adding blocks as she goes.  In doing so she's creating a series of mini-experiments. Over time, the results of her experimenting will add up to a new understanding of how things fit together, and, eventually, she'll be able to figure tasks like these out in her head, without ever touching a block.
So how does this relate to language? (This is, after all Child Talk).  Here's how: we know that cognition--the scientific term for the mental processes in our head--and language go hand-in-hand.    Problem-solving, remembering, and decision-making are all mental processes that both require language and inspire language.  Spurring cognition spurs language, and vice versa.

All of this to say:  Don't underestimate the importance of letting your child fail sometimes. It's such an essential part of learning. If you are like me, you may have to fight your instinct to help, to step in, to teach your child exactly what to do, to save her from the frustration and agony that come from not having things work out like they should on the first try.  And yet, it's worth the fight. Step back, watch, and let your little one explore on her own...and in doing so, know that you are handing her the keys to understanding the world around her.


  1. This is a nice reflection about the value of making mistakes in this era of "errorles learning". We learn so much from our mistakes and even more from our attempts to make things right! It's often so hard to override our therapist instinct to teach everything all the time and let children learn for themselves sometimes.

  2. CMF-SLP,

    Agreed! There is a time for errorless learning, for sure...but there is also a time for exploration and mistakes and learning...the trick is knowing which one, and when.

    Thanks for the comment! :)


  3. That's a great post. What is your favorite book about child development?

  4. Hey Lindsay,

    Thanks for the comment and kind words. Your question is a good one...and I may not have a great answer. Most of the knowledge I have regarding child skill development comes from my speech-therapy and behavioral intervention textbooks, journals, and classes. While I know there are great books out there about child *skill* development, but I don't know offhand which one I like best, because I haven't read most of them!

    That being said, I do love reading books on the behavioral and social-emotional side of child development, as that wasn't covered as much in my schooling. I've read and enjoyed Brazelton's Touchpoints book, Fey and Cline's Love and Logic book, and have most recently discovered Janet Lansbury's Elevating Child Care blog (http://www.janetlansbury.com/). All good stuff!


  5. Thank you for the book recommendations on child development. You have an amazing blog. So happy to have found it. I'm a retired kindergarten, Sp. Ed teacher and love new information for my blog. Thanks for sharing.