Does your toddler like to toss, smear and play with his or her food? Those typical baby actions could indicate that your little one is not only making a mess, but absorbing knowledge as well. According to a new research, the messier a child gets while eating the more they are learning.
In a study from the University of Iowa, researchers examined how well 16-month-old children learned the names of nonsolid foods and other objects while they are in a high chair as opposed to how they learned sitting at a table. Nonsolid objects are more difficult to comprehend because they don’t have a consistent shape.
"This study shows the cascading influence that the context of everyday activities – such as mealtimes – has on children's exploration, attention, and word learning," the study says. "When young children messily eat and explore food at each meal, they are learning both about individual foods and also about nonsolid substances more generally."
The researchers, led by Larissa Samuelson, an associate professor of psychology at the university, gave the children different nonsolid substances such as applesauce, pudding, juice and soup. They then made up names for the foods like “dax” or “kiv.”
When the researchers put the same objects out in different sizes or shapes and asked the children to identify them, the ones who more enthusiastically explored the materials by poking, throwing and picking them up, were more likely to correctly identify them.
Additionally, the children seated in a highchair were more likely to correctly identify objects than those seated at a table.
Why does a high chair versus a table make any difference?
"It turns out that being in a high chair makes it more likely you'll get messy, because kids know they can get messy there," Samuelson said in a statement.
The environment a child is in turns out to play a pivotal role in how they learn. Just as a high chair may provide babies and toddlers more familiarity and stimulus for learning about nonsolid objects, a desk may work better for learning math and a stool for painting art.
Children who have trouble directing their attention may need the contextual support of a certain environment to help them do so appropriately, the researchers contend.
"Children may be doing more than just making a mess in the moment: they are forever changing their attentional biases and the way they learn over development," the study says.
"It may look like your child is playing in the high chair, throwing things on the ground, and they may be doing that, but they are getting information out of (those actions)," Samuelson said in the statement. "And, it turns out, they can use that information later. That's what the high chair did. Playing with these foods there actually helped these children in the lab, and they learned the names better."
So the next time your little one throws his or her food in your face, or smears it in their hair- remember, it’s just a learning process.
The study was published in the journal Developmental Science.