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Messy Children Are Better Learners, Study Shows

Babies’ high chair may be a lot of parents’ nightmare – babies always make everywhere messy. However, a recent study published on Developmental Science might make parents feel more comfortable when clean up dining tables: Researchers from Iowa University found that the more messy toddlers make at the high chair, the more they are experiencing and learning.

This exercise provides a reference on how children’s behavior, environment and exploration can influence their early vocabulary-learning. “It might look like your baby is playing in the high chair, throwing stuffs on the ground, and they might be doing that, but they are also getting information out of these actions,” says Larissa Samuelson, corresponding author of the study and associate professor at Iowa University. Playing with foods actually helped children because they can learn the names better.

Compared with solid objects, nonsolid objects are more difficult for children to distinguish and categorize since they don’t have fixed shape and size. Previous studies have found that among 14 nonsolid object names that children learn in their early life – except for rain and water – most of them are food-related words, such as milk, coffee, pudding, applesauce, juice, soup, etc. Thus, when toddlers are feeling, learning and categorizing nonsolids, their behaviors are usually linked to specific environment. A lot of toddlers eat on high chairs and they can play with their foods as they like to. Compared with sitting at the edge of dining table, eating on high chairs is helpful for toddlers to obtain information.

110 16-month children took part in the study. The researchers divided 24 different foods into three groups – exemplar (a food with a shape), material match (the food is same with exemplar, but different shape) and shape match (same shape with exemplar, but different material).

Exemplar, material match and shape match

Three groups of foods used in the study. The center one is exemplar, while the left one is material match and shape match on the right. The researchers also prepared the exemplar foods in two ways: whole and pieces. *Image source: Lynn K. Perry, Larissa K. Samuelson, Johanna B.Burdinie.Developmental Science (2013).

In the experiment, every child would get three plates. Being presented with the foods, the children had to name them with imaginary words. One minute later, the researchers asked the children to select food with same material but different shape (material match trail).

The solid words learned by toddlers are all perceived and classified through shape. However, when they are learning how to describe nonsolid objects, they categorize them according to the similarity of the objects. Hence, to accomplish the task, children can’t simply rely on shape or size to distinguish foods, and they need to further explore the nature of the material and correspond them with names – this requires them to adequately contact and taste the three foods and then make the choice.

 Messy and non-messy actions

The observed behaviors of children when treating with foods. The messy actions include grasping foods, picking up foods and bringing to mouth. The non-messy actions include poking and touching foods with finger. *Image source: Lynn K. Perry, Larissa K. Samuelson, Johanna B.Burdinie.Developmental Science (2013).

It is expected that many kids begin to happily play with their foods: they poke, touch, pinch, bite or even throw away the foods. The researchers analyzed children’s behavior and found that children in high chair are highly likely to show messy actions and they are better than other toddlers in determining material shape foods. And before the experiment, the parents also filled out a survey investigating how messy their kids are when eating, and the result supported the phenomenon that children eating at high chairs are messier than in other places.

The researchers believe that the messier children eat, the better they understand the objects. When kids are messing up the high chairs, they are feeling, learning and categorizing instead of solely making troubles. Therefore, will parents still be annoyed next time when your kids are messing up everywhere?

Image source:Tim Schoon, University of Iowa