Messy Toddlers Are Learning
December 2, 2013

Kids Learn By Being Messy With Their Food

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A toddler’s messy mealtime might be a tidy parent’s worst nightmare, but according to a new study, children who play with their food are learning about the nature of non-solid objects.

The study, published in the journal Developmental Science, found children who play with their food in a laboratory setting were more likely to learn words for non-solids, a contrast to previous studies that have shown toddlers are more apt to learn about solid objects than non-solids due to their unchanging size and shape.

Study author Larissa Samuelson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, said the familiar context of sitting in a highchair during mealtime opens a child's mind up to learning new things.

Toddlers are "used to seeing nonsolid things in this context, when they're eating," Samuelson said. "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 non-solids."

In the study, the researchers exposed 16-month-olds to 14 non-solid items, which were mostly food and drinks like applesauce, juice, and soup. As they presented the items, the researchers gave them made-up names, such as "dax" or "kiv." Many of the toddlers happily began to poke, prod, feel, eat and even throw the non-solids once they were within reach.

A minute later, study researchers asked their participants to identify the same food, but in different amounts or shapes. This part of the experiment demanded that the youngsters had gone beyond relying simply observing an item’s shape and size.

The study team found the kids who interacted with their foods the most were more likely to positively identify them by their texture and name them.

"It's the material that makes many non-solids, and how children name them," Samuelson said.

The research team also found children in a highchair were better able to identify items than those in other contexts, such as seated at a table.

"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," Samuelson explained.

The researchers concluded that toddlers’ behavior, setting and experimentation help them in the earliest stages of building a vocabulary. This stage of learning is also linked to better cognitive development and functioning later in life, the study team said.

"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 said. "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."

For example, a cup of milk and a cup of glue might look remarkably similar to a 16-month-old.

"It's not about words you know, but words you're going to learn," Samuelson added.