Ping Pong Balls


Miriam continued playing with the hula hoop at Logo throughout this week. Since she is willing to watch other people and listen, adults incline to show her the things they enjoy and can do. This has caused me a problem. I will elaborate.

At the beginning of the project, Miriam underwent a number of experiments to permit the probing of her skills and understanding. One of these experiments involved showing her how to make a ping pong ball slide away and then return as an initially imparted backspin overcomes the impetus of its forward projection. (This experiment is described in The Grasp of Consciousness, Piaget (1974 French, 1976 English)). Since the time of that experiment, Miriam has been, whenever she has a ping pong ball at hand, making it slide away and spin back to her. She has shown this game to friends in the play group. The back spinning phenomenon is clearly one that engaged her interest.

A secondary intention of mine in buying the hula hoop was to conduct with Miriam a follow-up experiment to explore how easily she could generalize her ping pong ball knowledge to the similar back spin phenomenon with a hula hoop.

As I passed through the foyer a few days ago I heard Donna say, “Miriam, did you ever see this?” as she set the hula hoop on the floor with its circumference vertical. I asked Donna not to show Miriam the back spinning. Today, before our session began, Miriam was doing the hula in the foyer. She and Glen were apparently too noisy for the good order of the office, so while Miriam joined me in the music room, Glen went into the Learning Lab to play with the hula hoop. When Miriam and I came out for a break, Sam (an 8 year old) said, “Hey, Miriam, did you ever see this?” Glen had just been demonstrating back spinning to Sam. I stopped Sam’s explanation, explaining to him and Sam that Miriam and I were going to do an experiment about that and I did not want them to explain it to her now. Miriam and I left for sodas.

A while later as we re-entered the Learning Lab, Miriam, whom I was carrying at the time, glanced through the opening door, then excitedly turned to me and said, “Daddy, did you see what Glen just did?” I put Miriam down in the music room and asked what Glen had done. Miriam explained clearly enough to show that she had seen his back spinning the hula hoop. I turned on the tape recorder beginning again the transcription of Logo Session 10.

BobWait a minute. No, I don’t understand. You said he rolled something and made it come back?
Miriam A hula hoop.
Bob He did. How did that happen?
Miriam I don’t know. I think it went (a gesture in the air–unclear) like this.
Bob It did what?
Miriam I think it went like that (gesture again), then it rolled and came back.
Bob . . .well, wait a minute. Let’s see if I can get the hula hoop and you can explain what happened. (Bob brings in the hula hoop) Now, what happened?
Miriam It went like that (here Miriam gestures with the ping pong ball back spinning gesture on the edge of the hula hoop). Like that (repeating the gesture). I don’t know how he did it. (This gesture represents the only procedure Miriam knows creating a comparable effect; Miriam assumes Glen used some such procedure but is uncertain).
Bob Why?. . . I saw you pushing on it, the back of the hula hoop.
Miriam Yeah. (Miriam repeats the gesture several times).
Bob I get it. Have you ever done anything else like that?
Miriam Yeah.
Bob What?
Miriam The ping pong ball.
Bob That’s absolutely right, Miriam. I find that very striking. Did you ever see anybody else do that with a hula hoop?
Miriam Unh-uh
Bob Glen, would you come here for a while please? Miriam saw you doing this (spinning the hoop) for the first time she has ever seen anybody doing it. She figured out how it worked and why. So it doesn’t matter if Miriam sees it happening all over, now. (spins the hula hoop). Did you see it go out the door and come back?
Miriam Yeah. (Miriam tries once and is interrupted by talk). Hold it. I know. I’m going to do it. (Miriam tries backspin and succeeds, laughing). It rolled backwards that time.
Bob That’s a direct, analogous extension of our work with the ping pong ball.


The problem I mentioned at the beginning of the last incident receives its fourth illustration; after the end of Logo session 7, while I gathered my paraphernalia for our trip home, Miriam played with the hula hoop outside the music room. Marvin saw Miriam playing and said, “Miriam, have you seen this good trick yet?”

Thus, over the course of a few days, while the materials were at hand and Miriam was sensitized to the phenomenon, in four separate cases she encountered situations of potential informal instruction (if you count Sam’s attempt and Glen’s demonstration as separate). Can one control such exposure? I believe such attempts would fail, as this attempt of mine failed, because a lively intelligence, sensitized to an engaging phenomenon, will notice its manifestation with only the slightest exposure. Since controlling exposure is not possible, especially in a rich environment and an active culture, the problem becomes methodological. How to be in the right place (for me, with Miriam) at the right turn (when an insight occurs); how to recognize a significant development and document its occurrence in detail sufficient to support subsequent analysis and interpretation. I believe the design of this project, as an intensive, protracted, naturalistic study of a bright child in a supportive environment during a recognized stage of rapid development, focusses on a rich domain of developmental data. The breadth of this study with respect to child’s life in the home, at play with friends, and under tutelage (at Logo), being both intrusive (thereby perturbing the structure of her mind) and extensive (opening to observation situations not usually attended to), offers a better hope of following the fine structure of developing ideas than does any method limited to sampling ideas in separate minds. The recognition of significant developments is circumscribed by my sensitivity: whether that is adequate remains to be seen. The coupling of selective observation with mechanical recording and immediate transcription is my best answer to the documentation aspect of the problem.

Beyond the issue of methodology highlighted by these incidents, raised to theoretical prominence are the issues of analogy (how what is learned as a concrete action is extended to situations where the same action control structure effects a comparable result), the importance of sensitivity to phenomena (that periphery of effects, as Piaget has it, from which cognition proceeds to the center of explanation through the hypothesis of a known action), and the contrast of learning through analogy with learning through the progressive elaboration of not-yet- adequately-structured descriptions. These issues are raised but not to be addressed here.

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