To smoosh peas is to learn

learning methods

To smoosh peas is  to learn

A recent study has found that playing with their food is a way for toddlers to learn what they are, writes Perri Klass.

In a study published recently in Developmental Science, 16-month-old children were taught new names for foods like jelly and syrup, then tested to see if they could connect those names with the foods when they were presented in different colours and shapes.

The conclusion? The toddlers learned better if they had, shall we say, interacted vigorously with the original samples — in other words, had played with their foods.

But the experiment brings up a number of interesting questions about how children learn, about the role of play and exploration. And maybe even about table manners.

The psychologists who did this research were interested in the question of how babies learn about “nonsolid” objects. “We had noticed in our lab work before that children are much better at learning names for new solid objects that they didn’t know before,” said Lynn Perry, now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and lead author of the study.

Since solid objects have fixed characteristics, it’s relatively easy for a toddler to figure out what makes a cup, ball or chair. “It’s harder for them to learn the names of nonsolids,” Perry said. “You can’t just look and know what it is. You have to use your senses and explore a little more.”

The researchers reasoned that children’s most regular context for exploring nonsolid substances comes at mealtime, and that putting children in highchairs might help them learn the names of such substances. In fact, children sitting in highchairs did learn better in the study.

Parents were also asked to describe their toddlers’ usual behaviour at meals at home, and each child was scored for messiness. “It was the ones who were messy at home who, when we put them in the highchair in the lab, showed the best learning,” said Larissa Samuelson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, who supervised the research.

So the messy eater experiment is really about the developing brain and the cues and contexts that small children need to create lexical categories — everything covered by a particular word — a challenge especially when the category is not defined by a shape. The children who squidged around in the cream of wheat, tasted it, smeared it, did various unmentionable things with it — they were the children who understood what cream of wheat was. They could identify it even if it came in a different shape and was doctored with green food colouring. The messy-eater experiment is also about play and the way that children explore their worlds and learn as they go. Toddlers play with their food because toddlers play with their worlds. And by playing and exploring, they accumulate all kinds of data, which helps them put together a picture and a vocabulary for the world around them.

Some experts worry that in a world of sophisticated, digital entertainments, children may find fewer opportunities to create their own explorations. And we might wonder whether real-life investigations seem more obtrusive or chaotic to parents accustomed to their children’s virtual messing around.

Mealtime exploration

But mealtime will always offer opportunities to explore. “These simple, everyday activities like eating that we might take for granted, for the child really are rich sources of information,” Perry said.

I once worked in a clinic for young children who weren’t gaining weight — in paediatrics, the syndrome is called failure to thrive. Some of the parents had come through refugee camps and times of great hardship, and the sight of a small child “wasting” food by playing with it was very disturbing. We took those concerns seriously, with strategies to allow the children to handle their own food and feed themselves without it looking like too much food was being wasted, and that helped with nutritional intake.

So we can celebrate the sophisticated science that toddlers learn in their highchairs, matching new substances to those they have already encountered. 

Still, I can’t leave this subject without a word about table manners. Sixteen-month-olds are too young for those lessons, but, at a certain point, you come out of the highchair and join those around the table in exchange for giving up some of the messier mealtime pleasures.So, maybe, we should consider manners and polite behaviour the ultimate nonsolids for children to identify and master, new real-life learning opportunities that arise when families gather at the table.

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