Ok, great news for when your toddlers eat spaghetti, messy children make better learners

What’s got learning new sounds and words to do with how a baby eats or how messy it gets? Quite a lot, it seems. 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.

From the press release:

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 who has worked for years on how children learn to associate words with objects. “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. 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?

“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 senior author on the paper.

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.

“It may look like your child is playing in the high chair, throwing things on the ground, and they may be doing that, but they are getting information out of (those actions),” Samuelson contends. “And, it turns out, they can use that information later. That’s what the high chair did. Playing with these foods there actually helped these children in the lab, and they learned the names better.”

“It’s not about words you know, but words you’re going to learn,” Samuelson adds.

Abstract of the research paper:

We examine developmental interactions between context, exploration, and word learning. Infants show an understanding of how nonsolid substances are categorized that does not reliably transfer to learning how these categories are named in laboratory tasks. We argue that what infants learn about naming nonsolid substances is contextually bound – most nonsolids that toddlers are familiar with are foods and thus, typically experienced when sitting in a highchair. We asked whether 16-month-old children’s naming of nonsolids would improve if they were tested in that typical context. Children tested in the highchair demonstrated better understanding of how nonsolids are named. Furthermore, context-based differences in exploration drove differences in the properties attended to in real-time. We discuss what implications this context-dependency has for understanding the development of an ontological distinction between solids and nonsolids. Together, these results demonstrate a developmental cascade between context, exploration, and word learning.

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