Parents, Rejoice: Study Finds Messy Kids May Be Better Learners

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B Kitty/flickr
B Kitty/flickr

Anyone with kids may recall those wild toddler "meals" in which the food went flying, ending up all over the floor, the furniture, you, your child's face and body. The ratio of food offered to food actually ingested was grim.

It turns out there may be an unexpected upside to those epic messes (other than making fabulous holiday cards): new research suggests the messier infants and toddlers are at mealtime, the more they are learning.

Specifically, researchers suggest, learning vocabulary for new things is enhanced when toddlers are playing in a particularly happy place to be messy: the high-chair. A new study, led by Larissa Samuelson and her colleagues at the University of Iowa, shows that context matters for learning.

When 16-month-old infants sitting in a high-chair were presented with novel non-solid objects (such as, say, glue, oatmeal, or jelly), they were much better at then identifying something made of the same material compared to 16 month-olds sitting at a lab table. This was measured both in terms of their recalling names of the new objects (some example words were “dax” and “kiv”) and in distinguishing them from objects made of a different material but in a similar shape.

How could toddlers tell the difference between a jar of glue and a glass of milk? Well, not by just looking. The infants showed the best recognition of the objects they played with the most using their hands and mouths; gentle, non-messy touching didn’t help.

But perhaps the most significant finding is that the infants’ skills at identifying and naming these new objects was dependent on how messy the kids were outside the lab

(as ranked by their parents). “These findings are somewhat special,” says Samuelson. “The fact that in the high-chair children are used to behaving in a particular way — playing and messing with their food — that behavior is critical to them gathering the information they need.”

Why is this? It seems that meal-time provides a unique setting in which messiness is tolerated, so toddlers can get literal hands-on experience with the new things they encounter and learn about every day. In this way, tactical play experiences can facilitate a different type of learning. Samuelson explains the food-flying-phenomenon in psych terms: “Toddlers, who are notoriously bad at attention switching, may need contextual support for directing attention appropriately with different kinds of stimuli.”

Samuelson is interested in how other play experiences with lots of hands-on materials --like sculpting clay and finger-painting — could influence what children learn. Reflecting on her study, Samuelson says “I love what this says about children’s play: playing is learning.”

This program aired on December 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.