Toddlers who play with their food may be better learners: study
It's a scenario most parents know all too well -- a messy toddler in a highchair poking, smearing, and throwing food. But a new US study finds that the more your child plays with his or her food, 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 the oozy, gooey, runny stuff? Not so much, researchers said.
Yet, according to the latest findings, that changes if you put toddlers in a setting they know well -- a highchair. Word learning increases, because children at that age are "used to seeing nonsolid things in this context, when they're eating," says Larissa Samuelson, head researcher and associate professor in psychology. "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 new study published this week in the journal Developmental Science, Samuelson and her team exposed 72 toddlers 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, tasting, and throwing the nonsolids in order to understand what they were and make the correct association with the hypothetical names, the researchers said.
The toddlers who interacted the most with the foods were more likely to correctly identify them by their texture and name them, the study determined. For example, imagine you were a 16-month-old gazing at a cup of milk and a cup of glue. How would you tell the difference by simply looking?
The setting matters, too, it seems. Children in a highchair 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 highchair makes it more likely you'll get messy, because kids know they can get messy there," Samuelson said.