University of Iowa research: Messes can aid toddler development

Research published in Developmental Science journal

Vanessa Miller
Published: December 3 2013 | 3:52 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:25 am in
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Forget crying over spilled milk. How about celebrating it?

A new study involving University of Iowa researchers has found that the messier a child gets with food in a highchair, the better – at least when it comes to cognitive and speech development.

Allowing toddlers to experiment with nonsolid objects – like applesauce, pudding and oatmeal, for example – while in a familiar setting, like a highchair, increases word learning, according to the new research. Previous studies have shown that toddlers learn more about solid objects because they’re easier to identify due to their unchanging nature, according to UI News Services.

Nonsolid items have proven more difficult to learn, according to the research, but letting children get “messy” with them while in a familiar place helps. That’s because children are “used to seeing nonsolid things in this context, when they’re eating,” according to Larissa Samuelson, UI associate professor in psychology who worked on the new research that was published in the journal Developmental Science.

“They’re familiar with the setting, and that helps them remember and use what they already know about nonsolids,” Samuelson said in a news release.

The study exposed 16-month-old children to 14 nonsolid objects like food and drinks and gave them made up names, like “kiv,” according to UI News Services. Then researchers asked the children to identify the food in different shapes and sizes, requiring them to explore what a substance is made of rather than just remember its shape and size.

Researchers found that toddlers who interacted most with the items – feeling, eating and even throwing it – most often correctly identified them. Being in a highchair was helpful, according to the research, because children feel free to explore and get messy there.

The study is important, according to researchers, because an early vocabulary is tied to improved cognitive development and functioning.

“It’s not about words you know, but words you’re going to learn,” Samuelson said in the news release.

Lynn Perry, who helped create the study and analyze the data as part of her doctoral studies at the UI, is the first author on the paper. Johanna Burdinie, a UI undergraduate during the project, was a contributing author, according to UI news.

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