Messy Children Make Better Learners

News ID: 209260 Service: Science
kid on the highchair

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – Researchers found that toddlers learn words for nonsolid objects better when getting messy in a highchair.

Attention, parents: The messier your child gets while playing with food in the high chair, the more he or she is learning.

Researchers at the University of Iowa studied how 16-month-old children learn words for nonsolid objects, from oatmeal to glue. Previous research has shown that toddlers learn more readily about solid objects because they can easily identify them due to their unchanging size and shape. But oozy, gooey, runny stuff? Not so much.

New research shows that changes if you put toddlers in a setting they know well, such as shoving stuff in their mouths. In those instances, word learning increases, because children at that age are "used to seeing nonsolid things in this context, when they're eating," says Larissa Samuelson, associate professor in psychology at the UI.

"And, if you expose them to these things when they're in a highchair, they do better. They're familiar with the setting and that helps them remember and use what they already know about nonsolids."

In a paper published in the journal Developmental Science, Samuelson and her team at the UI tested their idea by exposing 16-month-olds to 14 nonsolid objects, mostly food and drinks such as applesauce, pudding, juice, and soup. They presented the items and gave them made-up words, such as "dax" or "kiv." A minute later, they asked the children to identify the same food in different sizes or shapes. The task required the youngsters to go beyond relying simply on shape and size and to explore what the substances were made of to make the correct identification and word choice.

Not surprisingly, many children gleefully dove into this task by poking, prodding, touching, feeling, eating -- and yes, throwing -- the nonsolids in order to understand what they were and make the correct association with the hypothetical names. The toddlers who interacted the most with the foods -- parents, interpret as you want -- were more likely to correctly identify them by their texture and name them, the study determined.

"It's the material that makes many nonsolids," Samuelson notes, "and how children name them."

The setting matters, too, it seems. Children in a high chair were more apt to identify and name the food than those in other venues, such as seated at a table, the researchers found.

"It turns out that being in a high chair makes it more likely you'll get messy, because kids know they can get messy there," says Samuelson.

The authors say the exercise shows how children's behavior, environment (or setting) and exploration help them acquire an early vocabulary -- learning that is linked to better later cognitive development and functioning.

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