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Toddlers who mess with their food 'are learning'

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

2nd December 2013 – Mums and dads with young children who are messy eaters or throw their food about should take heart – this behaviour is part of growing up and learning about the world, says a study.

The researchers go even further: the messier your child gets while playing with food in the highchair, the more he or she is learning, they say.

At the University of Iowa in the US, the team studied how 16-month-old children learn words for nonsolid objects, such as jam and jelly. 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.

The new paper, published in the journal Developmental Science, suggests that changes if you allow toddlers to indulge in familiar behaviour, such as shoving things in their mouths.

Gloopy, messy stuff

Lynn Perry, who helped design the study and analyse the data as part of her doctoral studies, tells us: "With non-solid things you just can't look at them to know what they are – you really have to feel them, touch them or smell them to get a handle on what they are."

This investigation of the world of oozy, gooey, runny stuff also helps with language development for toddlers who otherwise might struggle to differentiate between, say, soup and applesauce.

In a laboratory setting the scientists exposed 72 toddlers to 14 nonsolid objects, mostly food and drinks. As each item was handed to them it was given a made-up word, 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 of the children set about the task by poking, prodding and even throwing the nonsolids in order to understand what they were and make the correct association with the made-up names.

Those who interacted the most with the foods and drinks were more likely to correctly identify them by their texture and name them, the study found. For instance, faced with a cup of milk and a cup of glue, feeling and smelling is more likely to achieve results than using eyesight alone.

Naming nonsolids

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. The authors say the exercise shows how children's behaviour, environment and the way they explore the environment help them acquire an early vocabulary-learning that is linked to improved thinking skills later in life.

"They're not just being messy," says Lynn Perry; "there's information that can be gained from that messiness. So they might just be having fun, feeding and touching food at that moment, but that messiness is helping them learn about things, like yoghurt and jam, and all these things that they can really only learn about through touch and tasting."

She adds: "I think what this research really highlights is the importance of play and exploration in general – that it's not specific just for learning about food, but that it's play and simple, everyday activities that are important for teaching them how the world works."

Reviewed on November 29, 2013

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