Hats, glasses and floodlights. My infant daughter's brain linked these three things together. Hats and glasses were synonymous for a few days, then glasses and floodlights. It's gotten me thinking about the delightful connections (or collisions) among disparate items, their names, categories and boundaries.
My husband and I have been teaching her (and ourselves) some sign language. We decided
to try it after learning that it can alleviate the frustration little
ones feel when they don't have the verbal language to communicate their
many thoughts and needs. Giving them more tools to communicate can reduce temper tantrums, too. It is also a
tremendous amount of fun to be able to bond with her around the
observations she's able to share.
"Hat" was one of the first signs she learned. She loved pointing out people wearing hats. Then she started signing "hat" for people who were clearly not wearing hats. My husband and I found this puzzling, since we knew she understood what hats were. Then it dawned on us. She was signing "hat" for people wearing glasses or other head-objects, like headbands, or big earrings. In a quick attempt to give her the language she needed, I made up a quick sign for glasses. Later I looked up the real ASL sign for glasses, but my invented sign had already stuck with her, so we have kept our family sign for glasses, which is the thumb and fingers curling around to make a cylinder, held up to one's eye. Many of our sign adaptations have been motivated by the immediate need to communicate, and the need for one-handed signs, since we were often holding her. Her version of our versions are one step further removed-- she pinches her thumb and forefinger together and very carefully places it in the corner of her eye.
Within a few days, she started signing "glasses" for all sorts of things. We weren't sure what was going on, since it wasn't often related to people. She would sign with such confidence that we stuck with her, trying to figure her out. It turned out that she was noticing pairs of circles. Like the motion-sensitive floodlights that many of our neighbors have on the sides of their houses. Hats, glasses, and flood lights all shared overlapping names at certain points in her life. I think of these as falling into shared categories, like our old friend the Venn diagram.
Thinking in categories can get a bad rap among us art folks, who find odd comfort in conceptualizing "blurred boundaries" and "confounding expectations." Yet in my other world of librarianship, standardized vocabulary and categories are at the core of making information findable. My two professions are at odds with one another in this sense. I have been thinking about this as my little one is making observations and learning to talk. She uses categories in a way that adults find creative, and for her it is motivated by her desire to expand her ability to communicate.
Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, defines creativity as making connections among disparate things. Making these connections draws a line, from one point to another, and sometimes back around in a circle, enclosing the objects, concepts, and space between them. Just as trickster figures make us aware of boundaries we had not previously acknowledged. Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World explores how artists have played the role of trickster figures throughout history. My daughter, the ultimate trickster figure in my life, found dots to connect among hats, glasses, and floodlights. "We're in for it" my husband and I like to say when we're overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is going on inside her little head. We're quoting one of our former art professors, who replied to the email birth announcement we sent out with, "Congratulations! Boy, are you in for it now."
More resources, not linked above:
Signing Savvy has short little videos demonstrating each sign. They are a little small, and a little difficult to decipher at times, but the site is very easy to use, and you don't have to wait for videos to load.
My Smart Hands is a lovely site where you can watch videos of commonly used signs for babies. I appreciate the context they provide, describing the sign, repeating the sign, and then showing how it looks when a child does the sign.