How Children Learn and Form Habits

Whilst we are growing up we make many movements that are so common, and we do them so many times, that we become expert and do them automatically.  We say that we have learnt the lesson. We have to learn to write, for example. What a lot of thinking a young child has to do before it can shape the letters properly!

Now that you are older, you write quite freely and easily. Messages travel along the nerves to the muscles without your thinking about them.  You have developed a habit.

You often hear people speak of teaching a baby to walk. It is now known that the crawling first and the walking later are just natural abilities that come along in turn as the baby reaches a certain age, and that he will walk without any teaching when the right period for it arrives. Crawling and walking appear like teeth, just when they are wanted, but we improve them by practice. By continual practice people become very skilled at certain movements that are not natural to them. Tiger Woods did not make perfect stroke without practice, neither will you walk a tight-rope, or drive a car, or become captain of an ocean liner, or achieve any other skilled job without thorough training.

Some of our great efforts are the result of the accurate fitting in of a large number of movements. How accurately the parts of the brain must work together and time everything perfectly to produce a good result! Let us see how you were able to make that boundary hit in the cricket match.  Your memory told you that  it was the last ball of the over. You covered the  wicket with your bat, looked steadily at the bowler. Your eyes followed his strides, your brain told you that it was going to be a fast delivery. You observed the flight of the ball as it left the bowler’s hand. You appreciated that  it was a leg ball and the length a bit short.  Nerves carried messages to your legs and told them to step forward, your arms raised the bat, the stroke was beautifully timed, the ball was struck, it flew away over square leg’s head. You ran until the ball  reached boundary. Your ears told you that your chums were applauding you, and you acknowledged by raising your cap. And all this happened in a few seconds. Wonderful ?

It would be much too long a story to trace here all the stages the brain goes through until it reaches its greatest perfection in man.  We can just point to the chief things that have been responsible for its growth.  It grew side by side with the senses. As eyes, ears, nose and fingers developed into more perfect recording organs of the world around us, so the brain grew to store, record and interpret for us. This applies to animals as well as man.  How is it, then, that man has managed to jump ahead of animals?  We began to jump ahead the day man learned to stand upright on two legs. This gave him a pair of free arms, with hands and fingers to handle and do things. Here we have endless opportunities for making movements that other animals cannot  do.

Now you will be thinking of the chimpanzee at the zoo, and saying that  they use their hands too, and are vey funny at play. But they cannot do  hard sums in arithmetic and write essays. There must be something else that has put us ahead. Can you think what it is ? We have learned to talk, read and write. These are the crowning achievements that have put man first in the animal world. His use of tools, and the making of machines  and engines and fire, also gave him power to surpass all other living things.

Our  wonderful hands and our powers of speech have given us the lead over all other animals. In lots of ways animals are more naturally gifted than us. Our development of mind has dulled many of our natural abilities. We cannot smell our way home like the dog, but we can remember the names of the streets and the correct turnings, or we can ask our way home if we are lost. Instincts have for their main object the protection of the animal, and, curiously enough, if you think about all the many inventions and  mechanical devices that have evolved from the brain of man, their  purpose is just the same, namely, man’s protection. Fire protects you from the cold, the motor-car protects you from over exertion, agricultural machinery ensures plenty of food and protects you from starvation, and burglar alarms protect you from robbery.

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