Permutations

For a few days Elena was entranced by a newly-discovered tower toy. It’s been on her bookshelf since she was born, but she recently noticed it and wanted to play with it. Over and over she would take all the pieces off the central spindle, then put them back on in a different order. It was as if she was trying to figure out the one right way to solve the puzzle. It was an impossible task–it looked almost right no matter how she put it all together, but not quite perfect. That may be why it captured her attention; unlike other puzzles, she’s never done with it.

Her fascination with the tower did cause trouble one night: it was time for her to get into the bath, but we wouldn’t let her take it in and she started to protest. Thinking quickly, I asked her to help me put all the ducks in a row on the edge of the tub. That broke the tower’s spell just long enough–we got her into the bath–but I don’t think that’s the usual reason we need to “get our ducks in a row.”

Elena’s attempts to figure things out by putting them together in a different order extend beyond towers and ducks. Sometimes she interacts with toys the way we interact with her. For example, the baby doll often has to sit in the little high chair next to the table at meal time. She also has to have her arms folded for prayer and get at least a few bites of food on her tray.

Sometimes the stuffed animals, dolls, and other toys interact with us and the world around them. According to Jenny, Elena once held the phone up to her blanket as if it was going to talk to me. When Elena’s in the car seat, her bear frequently waves at the other cars on the road from the window. Sometimes he even waves at me when I come around to unbuckle her. I don’t know whether Elena thinks I can’t see her hand moving his paw. One more example–at bedtime I now have to say individual “night-nights” to whatever animals are in the crib with her.

Like any toddler, Elena sometimes does things that get her in trouble and merit a reprimand. Sometimes it even involves raised voices. When this happens Elena sometimes appears puzzled, but not like she’s trying to figure out what she did wrong; instead it’s as if she’s trying get inside our heads and figure out what we’re thinking. She must be understanding something, because she’s started to say sorry without prompting. She hasn’t yet started to model this behavioral pattern with her toys, but I think it must be only a matter of time before we hear her yelling at them, trying to put the pieces together.

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