This past weekend’s adventure with my foster grandson D: Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory. D. and I actually did this same outing a number of months ago, which consisted mostly of him sleeping soundly in his stroller in front of numerous outdoor animals’ cages as well as in the fecund, heavy-aired, lush Conservatory. It proved an invigorating walk for me against a backdrop of gorgeous park flora and exotic (if caged) fauna. As for D, well, it reminded of the comedian who once quipped about the opera: “I love it. You just can’t sleep like that at home.”
Last weekend was a horse of a different color for D, who will mark the milestone of his first full year on Earth in just three weeks. D is easygoing as babies come, but the wheels are turning all the time. He is at the very beginning of understanding what developmental theorists call a “concept of mind,” meaning that he has a rudimentary understanding of himself as a being, a “self” with all kinds of thoughts and feelings and such. What’s more, he also understands that those around him, those of us who talk and dress and feed and rock and sing and tickle and hold and love him – well, we, too, have minds.
It is a critical moment in infant development when they begin to point to stuff, for it is in this way that they demonstrate their desire to share minds – they point our attention to whatever it is that they’re focusing on, in order that we share the same focus, that we align our two minds in the same direction, and feel the deeply satisfying sense of sharing an experience. Interestingly, the only other mammals who demonstrate an understanding of pointing are elephants (which was established pretty recently) and dogs, simply due to so many years of close proximity to humans and their inherent desire to communicate and please us.
Anyway. High falutin’ language aside, D could not get enough of pointing to every single animal. We would stroll over to a cage, I would say the name of the animal, and he would point. He particularly loved scanning through the chimpanzees’ and apes’ habitats to seek out and point to each and every one he could find lolling in a high-up hammock, or swinging on a rope, or hiding in a dark, out-of-the-way corner.
Babies learn by categorizing. If you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that a very young child can recognize that a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are both dogs! D isn’t quite there yet, but we have been working on animal sounds. When I start to moo, or oink, or woof-woof, he gives me a special sidelong glance that says, “You’re weird; but I like it!” D has known for weeks now what a quack-quack is. When I say quack-quack, Dawson will crawl through all four rooms of my first floor until he finds the hideously gaudy stuffed animal that’s meant to resemble a duck. Everything else, for the time being, is a woof-woof.
Really, a joyous little boy who’s scanning every inch of an animal habitat until he finds the giant, panting, pent-up, blazing-eyed jaguar so he can shoot up his arm, point his index finger right towards the big cat’s face and from deep in his belly grunt out a “WOOF WOOF!” makes for a wondrous day.